ST. PETERSBURG — It’s decision time in the city. The same momentous, once-in-a-lifetime decision that keeps playing round and round in these parts.
It first arrived here with Tropicana Field’s conception in 1986. And then again, briefly, with a proposed waterfront stadium in 2007. And now the latest stadium decision could plausibly redraw a city’s future while simultaneously rectifying the sins of its past. Again.
That first time, the stadium was intended to lure Major League Baseball and bask in its economic windfalls while revitalizing a vulnerable neighborhood. This time, it is attempting to hold onto Major League Baseball and better capitalize on economic windfalls while restoring that same lost neighborhood.
The difference? In 2023, the city is finally hoping to get it right.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch is expected to announce Monday his choice among four competing bids to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site with a new stadium as its centerpiece. Realistically, the choice is down to two developers.
Both city officials and a third-party consultant have identified Hines and Sugar Hill as the most impressive proposals. And while you can parse the dollar figures and square footage totals for the two bids, the most critical disparity is this:
The Rays are completely on board with Hines, and not so with Sugar Hill.
And since their use agreement at Tropicana Field gives the Rays control over the land until the end of 2027, if Welch chooses Sugar Hill the ripple effects could be epic.
• The Rays could determine that Sugar Hill’s plans to begin early redevelopment jeopardizes their current business interests and could seek to block any construction on Trop property until 2028.
• The St. Pete City Council would need to approve a development deal with Sugar Hill. Since that could hasten the team’s departure, Welch might have a difficult time getting the necessary votes from the council. Some members might consider it problematic if the mayor bypasses the Rays’ proposal. “It would be for me,” said City Council member Ed Montanari.
• With the Trop site off the board, the Rays would turn their full attention to Hillsborough County, where there has been little appetite to use public funds for a stadium. If no deal materializes in Tampa, the Rays would likely begin exploring the possibility of leaving the market entirely in 2028.
Given all of that, what will the mayor do?
A mayor, a rock and a hard place
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The buzz around downtown is that Welch will likely choose the Hines/Rays bid, not just because of the ramifications but also the reputation of the developer.
But there is a persistent thought that Welch may have backed himself into a corner by emphasizing affordable housing and the legacy of the Historic Gas Plant District that was obliterated when the Trop was built.
The Sugar Hill plan proposes much more affordable housing that could be appealing to City Hall. The developer has set aside 47% of the onsite housing units as affordable housing compared to 15% in the Hines proposal, which also includes $15 million for affordable housing in other parts of the city.
“That (47%) rate in one spot, we really don’t believe they can actually do that,” said St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Steinocher. “We felt (Hines) went along more with what the current county and city model is, which is a mix of 20 to 25%, but also providing the resources to create a plan to provide (affordable) housing throughout the entire community, which is really fascinating.”
It has been suggested that Welch might try to split the baby by choosing Sugar Hill for the bulk of redevelopment while giving the Rays enough land to build their preferred stadium.
That’s not likely to appeal to the Rays, who believe downtown St. Petersburg only works as an MLB site if the surrounding development is pitch-perfect. Sort of the model of the thriving Battery neighborhood built in conjunction with the new Braves stadium in suburban Atlanta, as opposed to a stadium shoehorned into a Miami neighborhood that has not substantially improved attendance for the Marlins.
While the Rays initially explored joining forces with Sugar Hill a year ago, they do not appear sold on the developer’s current vision to transform the surrounding property into a destination spot.
“Our development team is uniquely suited to achieve Mayor Welch’s vision for the Historic Gas Plant District,” Rays president Matt Silverman said. “We have deep community roots, the experience and the necessary expertise to deliver a project of this size, scope and duration. Intentional equity initiatives are front and center in our proposal, and they will produce a lasting legacy of progress for St. Petersburg.”
This is only the beginning
Another issue bound to cause problems is the financing of a new stadium. While the city and team will profit from the site’s real estate potential, the cost for a ballpark is not baked into the redevelopment proposals. That means the city, Pinellas County and the Rays still would need to come to an agreement on how to split the stadium bill.
That raises the issue of what’s the most important element in the redevelopment process. Is it affordable housing? Is it a stadium that ensures the team remains here for another 30 years? Is it attracting more business to the downtown corridor?
“If we want to keep the team, and the team wants to stay here, that should be the No. 1 priority,” said retired St. Petersburg senior administrator Rick Mussett, who helped secure the franchise. “The quality of the rest of the project would have to be (exemplary) as well, but there are a lot of places doing major projects like this around stadiums.”
Ironically, the ironclad use agreement that has tied the Rays to Tropicana Field through 2027 also gives them tremendous leverage when it comes to redevelopment decisions. For that reason, some City Council members have previously favored coming up with a deal with the Rays before opening up the bidding for redevelopment projects.
Instead, the city now is in a position of having to choose either a bid that is supported by the Rays or potentially antagonizing their baseball partners by picking a competing developer.
So did Welch jump the gun by auctioning off the land before knowing for certain that a baseball stadium was part of the future?
That’s a legitimate question. But it could be argued that the competitive process might have forced the Rays to compromise on their plans when it came to including affordable housing and other amenities in their wish list for the 86 acres.
“This is probably the most consequential decision Mayor Welch could make during his time in office. And it’s a hard, hard decision,” said Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. “He’s an accountant by training. By nature, he is inherently thoughtful and reasoned and I think he will look at the evidence, the research, understand the financials, and make the best possible decision.”
St. Petersburg is a much different place in 2023 from what it was in 1986 when the City Council approved the bond sales that would finance the building of what was originally called the Florida Suncoast Dome.
Having a big-league team undoubtedly has helped the city grow in the ensuing decades, but it has not yet reached the status of similar-sized MLB markets when it comes to supporting the Rays.
And so, in many ways, the decision facing Welch on Monday is akin to what the City Council pondered nearly 37 years ago. It’s weighing the cost of being in business with MLB, the economic and cultural advantages a high-profile team can bring, and the needs of a city’s most challenging neighborhoods.
Six council members voted in favor of the stadium on that hot July afternoon in 1986.
“I can assure you,” one council member said that day, “that this city and the entire Tampa Bay area will be a better place for ourselves and for our children if we build the stadium.”
That council member was the late David Welch, father of future Mayor Ken Welch.
Round and round we go.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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