ST. PETERSBURG — Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said talks continue for a new stadium with both St. Petersburg and Tampa officials, and he expects a deal to be struck somewhere by the end of the year.
“That’s my belief. It’s a very reasonable anticipation,” Sternberg said prior to Thursday’s season opener at Tropicana Field. “And if we don’t, then there’s not a deal to be done, basically.”
If that is a hard deadline, the lack of a deal could lead to the Rays seeking to relocate from the Tampa Bay area once their use agreement at Tropicana Field expires following the 2027 season, with Orlando, Nashville and Las Vegas among potential options.
But Sternberg on Thursday said that he has become increasingly optimistic — “absolutely” — about resolution in the Tampa Bay area.
The Rays partnered with the Hines global development firm to win the right to redevelop the current 86-acre Tropicana Field site, known as the Historic Gas Plant District, with a new stadium the centerpiece and funding coming from a partnership among the team, the city and Pinellas County.
The Rays also have continued talks with some Tampa officials and have identified a potential waterfront site, but the path to a deal there, and how funding would work, is less apparent.
“There have been consistent conversations in St. Pete, and with the Pinellas County folks, as recent as (Thursday),” Sternberg said. “But it’s an enormous project. And it’s got a zillion moving parts. Billions of dollars in potential development.
“I think of it really as how do we get our new building and get to take that next step? We continue to have some conversations on the Hillsborough side of things. And I would say that it’s all progress.”
After announcing Jan. 30 that the Hines/Rays group won the request for proposal bidding, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch — who was on the field before Thursday’s game, hugging and talking with Sternberg — said they want to get a commitment from the team for the stadium. But the team wants to see agreement on the entire project, which also includes residential housing, hotels, retail, restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues.
“We were very excited about winning it,” Sternberg said. “And we’ve done nothing but work towards getting the next stadium built since then. We’ve got Hines folks in the building (Thursday).”
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By continuing to also talk with officials about a stadium in Tampa — where the Rays have previously said they would prefer to be — they are keeping their options open. And potentially keeping some pressure on both sides to end up with the best deal.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about ensuring that the team is here, throwing out its first pitch in 2028,” Sternberg said. “And then here, throwing out its first pitch in 2053 as well.”
Sternberg acknowledged they are further along with St. Petersburg, but also that things could move quickly with Tampa.
“I would expect that if it’s not happening on the Pinellas/St. Petersburg side that ... we would be far enough along by the end of the year with Hillsborough‚” he said. “There’s been a huge amount of legwork already done behind the scenes with the St. Petersburg side and the Pinellas side that Hillsborough would have to step up to do. We’re not near that point with them by any stretch.
“But I have no doubt that as conversations are going along with them, if it’s something that becomes realistic, they would get on it in a hurry. And we’d have a pretty good sense that it was doable over there by year end.”
That seems like the Rays are playing St. Petersburg and Tampa off each other, or at least keeping Tampa engaged as an alternate option, but Sternberg said it was more a matter of having multiple routes to the goal.
“Tampa is as much in the mix to try to keep the Rays here for the next 35 years,” he said. “We happen to be extraordinarily engaged with St. Petersburg and Pinellas. But there’s a long way to go there. And to shut off either side of the bay and what it puts at risk of the team being here long term is untenable for me.”
Sternberg brought up how even the team’s idea to split seasons between stadiums in Tampa and Montreal — which was unpopular with fans and eventually shot down by Major League Baseball — was “all with the idea of making sure the team stayed here for the 30 years after that. And now we’ve got a shot here on both sides of the bay to make that happen.”
Times sports columnist John Romano contributed to this report.
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