With plans for an Ybor City ballpark trashed by Major League Baseball and buried by the team, any hope for building a local home for the Tampa Bay Rays now appears focused on St. Petersburg.
Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg has said he won't seek an extension of the three-year agreement that allowed him to look outside the Sunshine City for a stadium deal in Tampa. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says he takes Sternberg at his word that he's not playing a leverage game and dismisses the possibility that any last-minute negotiations will take place before the agreement expires New Year's Eve.
"That's not going to happen," Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times.
And just to make sure any deal for a new stadium happens in St. Petersburg, newly-elected City Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes says the price of continuing to look in Hillsborough — should Sternberg change his mind — would be the team's development rights on the 85-acre Tropicana Field site. That's prime real estate that could generate hundreds of millions for the team if it decided to build a new ballpark there or merely run out the lease until it ends after the 2027 season.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has also been clear: Any ballpark discussion in Florida's fifth-largest city will be about the Trop.
It's not just political posturing. If the Rays decided to take another look at, say, Al Lang Stadium — their original choice before a deal exploded in recriminations and bad blood a decade ago — the team and the city would have to draw up a new agreement to guide the negotiation, says St. Petersburg City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch. Also, the city's lease with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who are now owned by the Rays, stipulates Al Lang must be used primarily for soccer.
Other possible sites that have been bandied about are likely already moot.
Derby Lane is soon to lose its dog-racing operations, but environmental concerns that include rising sea levels make the site unappealing to Kriseman. And the facility is located in the county, not the city.
"The maps that I've seen, it would give me pause, and certainly would indicate to me there would be a whole lot of additional expense," he said.
No discussions have been held on that site or Albert Whitted airport, which would need voter approval in a referendum to be used for a ballpark. Fifteen years ago, St. Petersburg voters rejected developing the site by a massive margin.
Meanwhile, a growing chorus of skeptics say the Rays' real goal is to canoodle with other cities. The list of possible suitors includes Montreal, Portland, Ore., Las Vegas, Charlotte, San Antonio and Nashville.
That's former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's take. Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda agrees.
"They never had intentions of coming here," Miranda said at a City Hall meeting Thursday. "It was a ploy to go somewhere else, like Portland, Oregon."
Foster believes the flirtation with Hillsborough County was meant to fail, that it was just a box that needed to be checked so the team could justify looking to other markets.
"So enjoy them while you got them," Foster said to St. Pete residents. "But the clock is ticking and eventually they're going to be gone."
Kriseman disagrees. After the announcement that the team had dropped its bid for the Ybor site, St. Petersburg's mayor reaffirmed his faith in the Trop site as the best place for the team.
But building a Trop 2.0 won't be easy. Depending on where the Rays want to build, there are environmental after-effects from the site's original use as a gas plant. And the low-income residents around the Trop who saw their old neighborhood bulldozed in the 1980s to build a stadium have been vocal in saying any new ballpark and surrounding development should include affordable housing and good-paying jobs.
Then there are the demographic hurdles. The reason the Rays wanted to look across the bay in the first place was that St. Petersburg isn't close enough to the region's population center. The team's below-average attendance figures of the past decade bolster the argument that the Trop isn't the right spot, a point that Sternberg and Major League Baseball officials, including Commissioner Rob Manfred, have made repeatedly.
So what are the chances that a first pitch might be thrown somewhere else on the Trop site in the next 10 years? That may depend on how desperate the Rays are to collect on their share of the development. If the team stays, they'll have the rights to 50 percent of whatever is built, which could be a several hundred-million-dollar windfall. The Rays could do a lot with that, like build a new stadium.
And the team has a say in any development the city wants to do before the use agreement expires in 2027.
Either way, Kriseman said the city won't wait for the team's term to run out before breaking ground.
"We looked at that site from two perspectives: one with a stadium for redevelopment, one without a stadium for redevelopment," he said. "Both of which contemplated redevelopment, and both of which didn't contemplate waiting for 2027 for redevelopment."
But won't the city need clarity from the team before it can start moving dirt? Otherwise, how can development begin where a new stadium might go?
"We don't expect five buildings to go up in the next few years," Kriseman said.
The Rays will make the final call and Sternberg has made it clear the team doesn't want to be in the development business. But a reimagined Trop could be alluring, Buckhorn said.
"Rick's got a wonderful opportunity on those 80 acres, although he'll have to share the (development) proceeds, at least in the short term," Buckhorn said. "So the Rays have to figure out, does a new stadium make it worthwhile to stay in St. Pete? Only they can answer that question.''
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