ST. PETERSBURG — For the longest time, there was a stadium. And Ferg’s. And endless parking spaces.
In a nutshell, that was the original Tropicana Field experience. It was also a symbol of the shortcomings of Tampa Bay, and specifically St. Pete, as a baseball market. Instead of hotels, restaurants and bars shooting up around the Trop, there were questions about why so few fans were attending.
And now, in an odd sense of reverse logic, it’s why the Rays are so optimistic about a new stadium at the site.
The barrenness of the land has gone from being an impediment to a prized asset.
The idea of having 86 acres in the middle of a city that can be completely reimagined into a village of homes, corporate offices and entertainment options, with a new stadium as the centerpiece, could turn a woebegone site into Tampa Bay’s newest destination spot.
“Initially, and in every subsequent iteration, we wanted a ballpark within city limits. Something walkable with placemaking around it,” Rays owners Stuart Sternberg said. “You look at the Fenway experience as opposed to going to a place surrounded by parking lots. People around here have talked about a lot of places — the fairgrounds, for instance — but they weren’t part of a walkable city. That’s why we tried for Ybor, which I thought could be that kind of spot.
“It’s about what is directly surrounding a stadium. Just because it’s near a city doesn’t mean that it absolutely works. We’ve always talked about a pinpoint perfect spot and we thought Ybor had everything covered as far as that is concerned. Fortunately, the (Tropicana site) has shown its mettle over the last seven or eight years. While it’s not ever going to be Chicago or Boston or New York — and that’s fine — but we do think with the growth ahead of us here, it has the ability to support baseball.”
The concept isn’t entirely new, but it has evolved over recent decades. Camden Yards added some vigor to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore in the early 1990s. Coors Field gave the LoDo section of Denver a shot in the arm a few years later. Other cities saw similar renaissances with the completion of new ballparks.
But that growth was often organic, which did not happen around Tropicana Field at the same pace. So now the Rays are turning to the example of The Battery, which opened in Atlanta in 2017 and was conceived as an entirely new community built around a ballpark. The Battery sits on a tract of land that is about 30% smaller than the Trop site, but includes corporate offices for Comcast, Papa John’s and other businesses, as well a hotel, condos, restaurants, bars and retail.
“That concept is truly transformational. When you go to The Battery now, it’s an event. It’s beyond the ballpark, beyond the ballgame, it’s an event,” said Hines senior managing partner Michael Harrison. “You’re going there ahead of time so you can have dinner with the family before the ballgame.
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“The big difference here, and the great opportunity we have, is where those Battery-type projects have been built previously. The Braves had to move out to the suburbs to do it because you can’t find land in urban environments. So you have acreage here that has been preserved for 30 years and it’s in the middle of a city.”
Figuring out a way to attract more fans was obviously at the forefront of the team’s thinking, but it was not the only factor.
The team’s current use agreement at Tropicana Field allows the Rays to share the proceeds of any land sales with the city. Sternberg had been hesitant in the past about being directly involved in development projects but is now in partnership with Hines and, presumably, in line to profit from some of the growth expected at the site.
“Stu certainly bought the Rays with the intention of running a baseball team,” said Rays president Brian Auld. “Somewhere along the line we got ourselves a soccer team (the Rowdies). Somewhere along the line we noticed that just about everyone else’s baseball team was using it with adjacent businesses and creating synergies and trying to control the land around their site. Not just necessarily to make money but to control the fan experience.
“One of the first things you’ll hear Stu say is markets change. You (can’t be) so stubborn to say, ‘All I want to do is run a baseball team forever.’ Some folks were saying, ‘Hey, we need to consider these other options.’ ”
So the stadium is the anchor for other businesses. And other businesses are the way to draw additional fans. And additional fans are the way to increase a team’s revenues and payroll. And a team’s success is a boon for the local economy.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
For a lot of years, that was not the case in St. Pete. Maybe that makes this a risky investment. Or maybe this is exactly what the Rays and St. Pete needed to finally realize the potential everyone saw here 30 years ago.
“I think professional sports realize it’s not just about butts in the seats anymore. It’s about how do you create an entertainment experience that starts before and goes beyond the duration of a ballgame,” Harrison said.
“What I think is truly unique about this placemaking opportunity is that it’s the hole in the donut. You’ve got this urban environment and we’re able to just plop it down in the middle. You look at Baltimore or Chicago or anywhere else and they’re trying to do the same kind of thing, but they don’t have the land you have here.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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