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Why an imperfect location was the best choice for a Rays stadium

John Romano | It wasn’t stubbornness. It wasn’t a lack of effort. It was simply circumstances that will keep the Rays near the same site at Tropicana Field.
 
Tropicana Field has been much maligned for years. Now it appears as though the Rays still will be keeping the team in St. Pete, and still near the Trop.
Tropicana Field has been much maligned for years. Now it appears as though the Rays still will be keeping the team in St. Pete, and still near the Trop. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Sept. 18, 2023|Updated Sept. 22, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — The journey began in the wrong place. It looks like it will end there, too.

So, after all these years of complaining about the location of Tropicana Field, why in the world should you be happy about the possibility of another 30 seasons of baseball played on the edge of downtown St. Pete?

It’s a good question. A legitimate question. In some neighborhoods, an angry question.

But before asking this question, you must be willing to listen to the answer.

Really listen.

Because the answer you are likely to hear from the Rays when they make an anticipated stadium announcement on Tuesday will not immediately appease the hundreds of thousands who surely have a different opinion on the matter.

It’s true, the Trop site is not ideal. Neither geographically, nor demographically. It is divorced from the market’s corporate base and it is too far from the center of population.

Personally, I would have preferred the waterfront property between the Florida Aquarium and Ybor City near downtown Tampa. Or, for aesthetic appeal, a complete redevelopment of the waterfront property in St. Pete where Albert Whitted Airport serves a minuscule fraction of the population.

And I think the Rays would have preferred either of those two properties, as well.

But just because those sites were more attractive doesn’t necessarily mean they made business sense. The airport property would have been a political nightmare to acquire and the Ybor land was in the hands of private developers.

So what about the ConAgra site? Or some of Jeff Vinik’s land around Amalie Arena? Or the West Shore area? Or closer to Raymond James Stadium? All those sites have been mentioned at one time or another, but they all have their own unique flaws. And, most importantly, public funding in Tampa/Hillsborough has been a problem forever. The mayor’s recent whiff on a request to raise property taxes in Tampa for civic improvements was not a good omen, either.

So how about Derby Lane? Or somewhere else near the Gandy Bridge to attract Tampa residents. Again, these are good ideas in theory but there are other concerns, including climate change that could result in flooding issues in the near future.

Fans watch the Rays play against the Tigers on opening day March 30 at Tropicana Field.
Fans watch the Rays play against the Tigers on opening day March 30 at Tropicana Field. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

That brings us — and the Rays — back to the Trop site.

It doesn’t have the emotional or historic aura of Ybor. It doesn’t have the breathtaking appeal of a spot on the water. But it does have some very practical advantages that likely convinced the Rays to return, even though ownership has occasionally sounded as critical about the site as a faceless commuter tired of driving to St. Pete from Brandon.

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There are funding mechanisms already in place through tourism taxes, and the site’s 86 acres also will help pay the cost of the stadium through redevelopment. Just as importantly, the vast amounts of land that are currently wasted as empty parking spaces can be re-purposed to make the surrounding community more vibrant for residents and more enticing for fans visiting the baseball stadium.

It’s anticipated that the Rays will pay more than half of what could be a $1.2 billion price tag on the building. That means St. Pete and Pinellas County will likely be on the hook for a combined $600 million or so, which is not easily swallowed. But, as pointed out previously, there are already ways of raising that money without putting additional burdens on homeowners and residents on the Pinellas side of the bay.

There’s no doubt, this venture is a gamble. It’s a gamble for Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, who is expected to sell off some of his equity in the franchise in order to fund his share of the stadium. It’s a gamble for St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch, who is banking on the idea of a cutting-edge stadium design to be the centerpiece of a giant redevelopment plan for a critical area of his city. It’s a gamble for residents who never cashed in on the promise of the original stadium more than 30 years ago.

The bottom line is this:

If you are of the opinion that no public funds — no matter where they come from — should be allocated to the building of a stadium, then this impending announcement will not make you happy.

If you are of the opinion that St. Pete is little more than a sleepy suburb with a few restaurants and breweries and is incapable of drawing 2 million baseball fans a year, then this impending announcement will not make you happy.

But if you are a baseball fan who has watched the saga of the Athletics as they pull up stakes in Oakland after more than 50 seasons and four World Series championships and prepare to move to Las Vegas, then this impending announcement should help you sleep at night.

As I said before, the Trop site is not ideal. The cost is high, and the roof will not be movable.

But the Rays have become a part of Tampa Bay’s daily life from March to October, and this risky stadium plan in this imperfect location with this incredulous price tag should ensure the team remains here for generations to come.

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

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