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Meet the new Rays stadium, same as the old Rays stadium

John Romano | Putting the brakes on the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site is a pretty good indication that St. Pete thinks a new Rays stadium can be built there.
Ah, dome sweet dome. With Tampa dragging its feet on finding funding for a potential baseball stadium, the odds of the Rays rebuilding on the Tropicana Field site are growing.
Ah, dome sweet dome. With Tampa dragging its feet on finding funding for a potential baseball stadium, the odds of the Rays rebuilding on the Tropicana Field site are growing. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2021) ]
Published Jun. 29|Updated Jun. 29

ST. PETERSBURG — This journey began 5,349 days ago. Somehow, it has not moved an inch.

Yup, more than 14 years after the Rays first expressed a desire to build a new stadium, we are apparently back to viewing the Tropicana Field site as the most likely location.

At least that’s the logical interpretation of St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch’s announcement Wednesday about reopening the bidding process for the Trop’s redevelopment.

Now, depending on who you are listening to, the notion of putting a new stadium in the same location is either inspiring or insane. I’d like to offer a third possibility: It’s just reality.

Building a stadium was never going to be as simple as picking a favorite location and calling an architect. Yes, many fans want a stadium in downtown Tampa. Yes, Rays ownership wants a stadium in downtown Tampa. Yes, the politically connected want a stadium in downtown Tampa.

The problem is no one wants to pay for a stadium in downtown Tampa.

At various times, the Rays have also been interested in building on the St. Petersburg waterfront. A lot of fans thought this was a brilliant idea, too. City Hall has occasionally entertained that notion.

But, again, this is not a unilateral decision. And too many voices were in opposition.

Which brings us back, more than 14 years later, to the corner of 16th Street and 1st Avenue in St. Pete. Or, if we want to get frisky, maybe the corner of 9th Street and 1st Avenue.

Either way, the Tropicana Field site has always offered the easiest path. The site has plenty of land, it has revenue streams in place, and with Welch on board, it now has a friendly administration. All it lacks is enthusiasm, a proven track record and any pizazz whatsoever.

So does this mean it’s the Trop or bust? Of course not. If we’ve learned anything while considering Al Lang, Albert Whitted, Derby Lane, Carillon, the West Shore district, the fairgrounds, the Tampa Greyhound Track, Oldsmar (?!?!) and Ybor City, it’s that there is always someone else with a novel idea.

But that Welch was willing to put the brakes on the redevelopment of the Trop’s 86 acres suggests the Rays are on board with this possibility. That the Rays did not “put a ring on it,” as Welch wanted, also suggests the Rays are not yet 100 percent committed.

Still, Welch’s decision is the right way to go.

Starting the redevelopment process without knowing whether a stadium would be built made no sense at all. Even if you have zero love for or loyalty to the Rays and would rather see them in Nashville, it made no sense. While the current stadium use agreement ties the team to St. Pete through 2027, it also makes the Rays a partner with the city when it comes to that location.

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So if the team was not happy with redevelopment happening in its parking lots, it could have caused the city some headaches by going to court. Plus, the Rays are entitled to 50 percent of the redevelopment proceeds. So the city would, in effect, be paying them millions to leave town.

Does all this make for a potentially awkward relationship between the team and the city? Yeah, a little.

For several years, Rays executives all but condemned St. Pete as a major-league city. Attendance was so bad, they made it sound as if MLB officials wanted no part of Pinellas County.

So how does it make sense that now the team is potentially interested in a domed stadium in St. Pete that would cost in excess of $1 billion?

The short answer? Circumstances change.

Tampa swung and missed on its chance to build a stadium (the original Ybor City stadium and not the smaller sister-city version that MLB nixed), and downtown St. Pete has continued to grow.

It may not be the ideal location geographically, but if the redevelopment could entice a major corporation to put its headquarters on the site and if something akin to the Atlanta Braves’ entertainment district could be replicated, the Trop site would have a chance to be successful.

And don’t be surprised if Tampa Mayor Jane Castor is doing a happy dance over Welch’s decision. Castor has no desire to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for a Rays stadium, but she also doesn’t want to be blamed if the team eventually moves out of the state. A marriage between the Rays and St. Pete is her best-case scenario. She might even pay for the rehearsal dinner.

The bottom line is there has never been any absolutes when it comes to this story. The combination of needing money, land and political willpower makes it a delicate dance no matter what location is chosen. And that’s one reason it has dragged on for nearly 15 years.

It’s also why the original site may now be the leading contender for the new site.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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