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Suddenly, we have plenty of Rays stadiums we can’t afford

John Romano | The designs are pretty. The excitement is real. But finding cash in Tampa is still a problem.
 
The Rays have not publicly released details about a proposed waterfront stadium in Ybor City, but renderings were captured by city of Tampa officials during a Zoom call with team executives in mid-November.
The Rays have not publicly released details about a proposed waterfront stadium in Ybor City, but renderings were captured by city of Tampa officials during a Zoom call with team executives in mid-November. [ City of Tampa ]
Published Dec. 17, 2022

TAMPA — Somewhere, in archives of the future, there is a drawer filled with Tampa Bay’s ballpark renderings. The original waterfront park that was not to be in St. Pete. The current pavilion concept at the Tropicana Field site. The first foray into Ybor City. Then the second. And, now, the third.

We love us some architects in Tampa Bay but, apparently, are not so hospitable to accountants and contractors.

Which explains why, nearly a year after the sister city concept with Montreal was quashed, we are swimming in pie-in-the-sky designs on both sides of the bay.

There are the four development bids for the Trop site. (But only one is approved by the Rays.) And there is a new waterfront design in Ybor City. (Approved by the Rays, but not yet acknowledged by them.)

For the conspiracy-minded, there’s even glossy photos of a retractable roof stadium on the Cumberland River in Nashville that have been floating around for years. (Casually ignored by the Rays.)

So what’s a baseball fan to think?

Well, first of all, it’s important not to get too excited. Nothing is going to happen until the financial equation is figured out, and that’s been a decade-long hurdle around here.

But we are slowly nearing the expiration date of the Trop’s use agreement after 2027, so that means the urgency level will gradually intensify.

As you have no doubt noticed over the years, things can, and will, change. But at this moment, no one is talking about the Tampa fairgrounds or Carillon or Albert Whitted or Gandy. At this point, there are three realistic scenarios for opening day in 2028.

The Ybor City concept

Aerial view of proposed Ybor City ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Aerial view of proposed Ybor City ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays. [ City of Tampa ]

The plan: This is the team’s third attempt at a stadium in Ybor, and probably the most attractive because of the location. Developer Darryl Shaw is in the process of acquiring 25 acres of waterfront property just around the corner from Channelside Drive. Because it’s not situated in the middle of a neighborhood, designers have proposed a splashier and more distinctive design with the exterior roof. The capacity would be the same as the Trop proposal (in the 30,000 range) with similar pavilion-like openings. But instead of opening up to restaurants and shops, fans would get views of downtown Tampa and water.

Best argument: By now, this is obvious. Ybor is closer to the market’s geographic/population center and downtown Tampa has the corporate presence the Rays crave. The team has been upfront about its preference for a stadium in Tampa.

The problem: While Tampa/Hillsborough officials and fans have been vocal since the 1980s about being the best place for a baseball stadium, the community has never come up with a viable funding plan. In 2023, that will continue to be the singular issue. Mayor Jane Castor has been cordial with the Rays, but hasn’t aggressively pursued the team. She’d be much happier if St. Pete came up with a no-brainer deal for the Rays and she wasn’t on the hook for a $1.2 billion ballpark, which would likely require at least $800 million in public money.

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The Tropicana redevelopment

Rendering of proposed Rays stadium and surrounding redevelopment as envisioned by the team and the Hines real estate group.
Rendering of proposed Rays stadium and surrounding redevelopment as envisioned by the team and the Hines real estate group. [ Courtesy of Gensler architectural firm ]

The plan: The city is eager to reimagine the 85 acres where the Trop currently sits, and four different developers have submitted bids. Only one, however, has the team’s approval. (And the city could be handcuffed in terms of starting construction in the next five years if the Rays are not on board with the plan.) The Rays and mega developer Hines have come up with a stadium design with a roof and movable walls that will keep fans cool and dry during the summer, but also allow for breezeways and walk-through openings that will integrate with the surrounding development.

Best argument: The giant plot of land could turn into a coveted destination project in St. Pete, much like the Battery in suburban Atlanta. Pinellas/St. Pete already has funding mechanisms in place through tourist taxes, and the nearby population has been growing rapidly.

The problem: While the demographics are changing, we have 25 years of evidence that this isn’t the best location for a ballpark. And, at various times, the Rays and Major League Baseball have said as much. With that in mind, the Rays may not be willing to contribute as much money toward the stadium cost as they would in Tampa. Mayor Ken Welch’s bidding process could also be problematic. By encouraging the Rays to partner with a developer, there’s a scenario where the city could choose a different bid and the team decides not to be involved. That would not only kill the stadium plan, but it could also delay the development of the land because the Rays would still be in control until 2028.

The specter of relocation

The possibility: The Rays insist they have no intention of leaving Tampa Bay, and have spent millions working on potential ballpark plans. But MLB owners have long used the threat of relocation to get ballparks built, and it’s likely to become an issue here if there is no concrete plan for a stadium in the next year or two. We’ve seen that happen in Oakland, where the Athletics have been given permission to explore a relocation to Las Vegas.

Why it might happen: There is zero evidence Tampa/Hillsborough will come through with the money the Rays are seeking. The city and county had a chance to lure the Rays in 2018, and came up way short in financing. And, back then, the stadium price tag was closer to $900 million. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg may be willing to foot more of the bill in Tampa than he would in St. Pete, but there’s still likely going to be a sizable gap between what he offers and any public funds available.

Why it might not happen: MLB would prefer to avoid relocation. There are not a lot of untapped markets that can handle the TV/attendance numbers a baseball team needs, and the league would rather save those for expansion. Why? Because MLB could charge prospective expansion owners $2 billion or more for a franchise. And, as ugly as stadium negotiations can get between a team and a community, there has only been one MLB franchise relocation in the last 50 years.

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

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