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Rays confident of closing deal for $1.3B downtown St. Petersburg stadium

If approved, the team will pay $700 million, and the city and county will split $600 million. The plan is to break ground next fall, with the fixed-roof domed stadium to open in 2028.
 
A rendering of the Rays' new stadium in the Historic Gas Plant District.
A rendering of the Rays' new stadium in the Historic Gas Plant District. [ Courtesy of Hines ]
Published Sept. 19, 2023|Updated Sept. 22, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have played this game before several times over the last 16 years, sharing pretty pictures and colorful words about the prospects of getting a new stadium built in the Tampa Bay area.

In announcing an agreement with St. Petersburg and Pinellas County on Tuesday for a new ballpark in downtown St. Petersburg near the Tropicana Field site, they said they are much more confident of closing this deal and having a new $1.3 billion home starting in 2028 with a 30-year lease.

“I think we’re in the seventh-inning stretch, if not warming (closer Pete) Fairbanks up,” team president Brian Auld said. “We’ve had stadium announcements before, so that’s a very fair question.

“But this one comes with a financing plan to it. One that’s been agreed to by both the mayor and the county administrator. So we are many, many innings ahead of where we’ve been able to get before.”

Team, city and county officials shared details at a celebratory-style morning announcement at the Trop.

“Today is a day of celebration for our community,” St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said. “We’re excited to say the Rays are here to stay.”

“Here to Stay” is displayed on the scoreboard as Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg speaks at Tropicana Field on Tuesday.
“Here to Stay” is displayed on the scoreboard as Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg speaks at Tropicana Field on Tuesday. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“Right here,” Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said, looking to the adjacent new site. “Well, technically in the parking lot, just beyond the (current) scoreboard and Booker Creek.”

The stadium, part of a massive $6.5 billion, 20-year redevelopment of the 86-acre Historic Gas Plant District led by the global Hines Co., would seat around 30,000 under a pavilion-style fixed roof. It would have an artificial turf field, air conditioning, some operable windows and walls “to bring the outside in” and “provide a sense of place,” plus what the team says will be state-of-the-art amenities for fans and players.

“This is something that’s a dream come true for us,” team president Matt Silverman said, “to be able to build a first-class facility, a jewel for Tampa Bay, and something that’s going to be a magnet and a destination, not just for people in St. Pete and Tampa Bay, but from across the country.

“Our goal is to build the best ballpark in America.”

The financing plan calls for the city and county to split an approximate $600 million public contribution, with the Rays covering the remaining $700 million, plus any cost overruns.

Those agreements with Welch and Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton require approval by the City Council and County Commission, which Auld said they are confident of getting. They hope to break ground around this time next year.

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A rendering of the Rays' news stadium and development project for the Historic Gas Plant District.
A rendering of the Rays' news stadium and development project for the Historic Gas Plant District. [ Courtesy of Hines ]

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, who met with city and county leaders during a Sept. 8 visit to the Trop to talk with Rays and Mariners, was glad to hear there was progress.

“A new ballpark facility in Tampa Bay has been a goal for Major League Baseball for a number of years,” Manfred said in a statement. “We are very pleased that the Rays and the city of St. Petersburg have reached an agreement that brings us closer to achieving this important goal.”

The biggest question is why the Rays would build a new stadium on essentially the same site when attendance has lagged for much of their first 26 seasons.

Team officials cited that concern repeatedly in making several attempts to get a new stadium built in Tampa and even pursued a radical plan to split home games between Montreal and Tampa.

Auld said the recent building boom and influx of new residents in downtown St. Petersburg — with projections for more, including 6,000 units as part of their redevelopment project — changed the calculus.

“One of the things I’ve said multiple times is we’re in the same location as we were five years ago, but I really do feel like we’re in a different city,” Auld said.

“There are so many (new condos and apartment buildings) all across the city, and all across this region, that I do believe it has fundamentally changed this region’s, and this city’s, ability to support our team.”

Auld also cited other factors, from the generational growth of their fan base (including a nearly 30% increase in attendance this season), to the overall improvement in the economy, to Sternberg living in and “coming to really love St. Petersburg,” to the benefit of seeing and learning from what has worked in other markets, such as The Battery development around the Atlanta Braves’ stadium.

“The ability to take advantage of this unique 86-acre contiguous parcel in the middle of a downtown with an outstanding partner and a mayor who was dead focused on keeping Major League Baseball really tipped things for us,” Auld said.

“It’s all kind of starting and building on itself. And that’s enough to give us the confidence to go forward with it … to say, hey, we’re ready to take this risk. And it’s not like a county and city aren’t jumping with us. We’re in it together, our successes will be joined. And it’s exciting.

“But, yeah, I’ll be the first to tell you, even five years ago, it was hard to imagine thinking this was going to be a great idea.”

A rendering of the Rays' news stadium and development project for the Historic Gas Plant District.
A rendering of the Rays' news stadium and development project for the Historic Gas Plant District. [ Courtesy of Hines ]

Silverman said they see many indicators pointing the right way. “We’re not making a bet, we’re making an investment in the future of the city and in this franchise,” he said. “And we see really, really great years ahead for us.”

Both the County Commission and the City Council will discuss the agreement at October meetings but won’t likely vote until early 2024, with the city process including the more complicated redevelopment agreement.

Welch said he was “very optimistic about us moving forward very quickly.” And Burton said “we’ve been in communication throughout so there shouldn’t be any surprises” as the process continues, adding that they are confident there is enough hotel bed tax revenue to cover beach renourishment and baseball projects, which had been a concern.

Both the city and county expect the investments to pay off. St. Petersburg city administrator Rob Gerdes said their return “is going to come in the form of good paying jobs, affordable and workforce housing, new revenues to the city of St. Petersburg, and $50 million in community benefits” that is part of the project.

“We’re counting on our partners at the county and for the mayor to deliver those votes,” Auld said. “We’re pretty confident we’re going to see this thing through, we’re going to get the votes that we need and hopefully break ground before the end of 2024.”

The Rays have been exploring different ways to cover their $700 million share — “more than we would have expected,” Silverman said — which could include financing or selling equity in the team to investors, a process that Sternberg told the Tampa Bay Times on Sept. 8 has also led to inquiries and offers to buy the team, potentially at a premium price approaching $2 billion.

Megan Daniel of St. Petersburg, right, along with her son Gunner Daniel, smile at each other while looking at renderings for the new ballpark.
Megan Daniel of St. Petersburg, right, along with her son Gunner Daniel, smile at each other while looking at renderings for the new ballpark. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“Any number of options are available and we’re not worried about meeting that obligation when the time comes,” Auld said.

The overall redevelopment plan includes 14,000 parking spaces; 4,800 market-rate residential units, plus 600 at affordable/workforce prices and 600 for seniors; 1.4 million square feet of office and medical space; 750 hotel rooms; 750,000 square feet of retail space; a concert venue with a capacity of 3,000-4,000; and a new home for the Woodson African American Museum of Florida.

One change from the original plan was to increase the number of affordable housing units 40%, from 859 to 1,200. There now will be 600 units on-site — including 100 designated for seniors, allowing the potential for residents displaced from the site when Tropicana Field was built in 1980s to move back — and 600 off-site at a location to be determined.

Welch made it very clear to the Rays and Hines that the affordable housing component was a priority, and he said several times Tuesday that he was driven by making amends for those displaced families.

The agreement, he said, “means that we’ve shown the power of partnership, and that we’re honoring promises that were made some 40 years ago. And through the shared priorities that we have — the city, the county, Hines/Rays — we are setting the path for progress for our city for decades to come. So it’s important from an economic standpoint. It’s important from an opportunity standpoint. And I couldn’t be more excited about the path forward for us.”

Hines senior managing partner Michael Harrison said about 20% of the redevelopment should be in place when the stadium opens, including ground-level retail, food and beverage outlets on the parcels east of Booker Creek, some of the marketplace and affordable housing units, a full-service hotel with conference space and the first office building.

“To have the opportunity to be involved in a city-defining project like this, a multigenerational project, it’s both a thrill and a privilege,” he said. “We couldn’t be more excited to be working on this project.”

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