ST. PETERSBURG — Doubt made its first appearance on April 1, 1998. That was the day the Devil Rays saw their attendance dip 33% for the second game in franchise history at Tropicana Field.
Since that evening, we have been told there were problems with a stadium on the edge of downtown St. Petersburg. It was too far from the market’s population center, there was no corporate base surrounding the ballpark, it was in a downtrodden part of the city.
It was — we heard from team executives, baseball commissioners and smartass commentators for a quarter-century — at the root of all of Tampa Bay’s attendance problems.
And, on Monday, we celebrated the possibility of a stadium sequel in the same blessed spot.
This is not a condemnation of Mayor Ken Welch’s announcement that the Hines/Rays partnership had been chosen to redevelop the 86-acre Trop site. In fact, it was the correct move by the mayor and an encouraging sign for a community that has heard the persistent hum of relocation talk for years.
But it is a decision that requires explanation.
The Rays have made it clear that they would prefer a stadium in Tampa and have kicked around several sites near Ybor City and the waterfront. So why consider spending as much as $1.2 billion for a stadium in the same location that has contributed to attendance woes and lower-than-expected revenues?
“I think it’s well understood that Tampa is the business and geographic center of the region. But it’s been proven to be challenging to get a ballpark built over there,” said Rays president Brian Auld. “Meanwhile, St. Petersburg continues to grow, continues to evolve and is continuing to support this team in a meaningful way. And there’s good reason to believe that, with a placemaking development like the one we’re talking about, we can increase attendance even more.
“Most important, and this has been the case from Day One, it’s just figuring out a way to make sure this ballclub stays in Tampa Bay for generations to come. We’re running out of time.”
I believe it was the philosopher Sir Michael Jagger who originally came up with the idea that you don’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.
In essence, that’s what the Rays are saying. They would rather be on the waterfront. They would rather be nearer downtown Tampa. But building in Hillsborough County is a much more expensive proposition.
And so they are willing to reconsider St. Pete because they could get more money from tourism taxes on that side of the bay, and because they stand to profit off the redevelopment of the Trop acreage that they control through the end of 2027.
Tampa might offer greater revenue streams in the future but, because there has been little enthusiasm to commit public dollars to the project in Hillsborough, the Rays would have to fund a much higher percentage of the stadium cost.
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St. Pete’s downtown is also going through a revival and the Rays are hopeful that the master plan devised by Hines and the Gensler architectural firm can turn the Trop land into a destination site.
That’s something the team has never enjoyed with Tropicana Field, which was built cheaply and on speculation years before the team was awarded.
“This franchise has never had a new facility, not even a new spring training facility,” said team president Matt Silverman. “There’s a lot of upside for the team to be able to open a brand new, state-of-the-art facility with a roof, embedded into a development in a thriving downtown.
“For a fan it will be about going to bars and restaurants beforehand, enjoying a walk along Booker Creek. It’s not just about parking in a lot and walking to a game and going back to your car afterward. That’s something that we haven’t been able to offer to our fans forever.”
This isn’t over. You know that, and I know that. For that matter, so do the Rays and the mayor.
The city is going to want the Rays to commit to St. Pete and cease all conversations with Tampa, and that’s probably not going to happen. At least not without knowing exactly how much money is available for the stadium, and a guarantee on what the surrounding development will look like.
And since Tampa landowner Darryl Shaw is eager to begin building on his property in Ybor City, the urgency to come to terms in St. Pete will ratchet up quickly.
So, yes, there are still hurdles. Big, serious, potentially insurmountable hurdles.
On the other hand, this feels like the best chance the Rays have had for a new stadium since beginning this odyssey with the suggestion of the Al Lang waterfront site in 2007.
For once, there is a combination of land and revenues. And a potential partnership between the team and a local government. For once, the optimism is based more on reality than hope.
“We’ve got some new elements available so things that may have seemed scarier five or 10 years ago look a little different,” Auld said. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive indicators that things are improving. And so we’re willing to make some of those bets.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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