Future of MLB's Tampa Bay Rays to come into focus with key meetings on $1.3B stadium project

The future of the Tampa Bay Rays is about to come into clearer focus as the St. Petersburg City Council begins discussions about the team's planned $1.3 billion ballpark

Curt Anderson
Wednesday 08 May 2024 05:08 BST

The future of the Tampa Bay Rays is about to come into clearer focus as local officials begin public discussions over a planned $1.3 billion ballpark that would be the anchor of a much larger project to transform downtown St. Petersburg with affordable housing, a Black history museum, a hotel and office and retail space.

The St. Petersburg City Council will begin a detailed look Thursday at the plans by the Rays and the Hines development company for what the city calls the Historic Gas Plant Project. The name is a nod to the 86-acre (34-hectare) tract's history as a once-thriving Black community demolished for the Rays' current domed Tropicana Field and earlier for an interstate highway spur.

Mayor Ken Welch is St. Petersburg's first Black mayor and his family has roots in the Gas Plant neighborhood when the city was racially segregated. He said it's important to keep the Rays in the area and to restore promises of economic opportunity never met for minority residents after the businesses and families were forced out decades ago.

“I see it as a real opportunity to uplift the entire city,” Welch, a Democrat, said in an interview at City Hall. “This isn't just a stadium. This is a stadium surrounded by the largest development in the state of Florida, if not the nation.”

The plan would cap years of uncertainty about the Rays’ future, including possible moves across the bay to Tampa; Nashville, Tennessee; and even an idea to split home games between St. Petersburg and Montreal. The Rays typically draw among the lowest attendance in MLB, even though the team has made the playoffs five years in a row.

The proposed 30,000-seat ballpark, which would open for the 2028 season, is a priority in the first phase of what ultimately is a $6.5 billion project. The City Council meeting Thursday will focus on other aspects of the plan, with a May 23 meeting set on the ballpark itself. Final votes are expected in either June or July; the Pinellas County Commission also must vote on the project.

According to the Rays, the first phase will break ground next spring with the ballpark and initially include 1,500 residential units, 500 hotel rooms, office and medical space, a new Woodson African American Museum of Florida, as well as entertainment, conference, ballroom and meeting spaces. The plan also calls for a tract of open space, particularly around a nearby creek, as well as work on an abandoned Black cemetery near the site.

The plan has drawn strong support from business and charity leaders across Tampa Bay, as well as organizations ranging from the NHL's Lightning to St. Pete Pride, an LGBTQ+ group. Many local Black leaders also are in favor, according to support letters they have sent to the council.

Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association, once lived in the Gas Plant neighborhood. She said people like her and descendants of the earlier residents feel “vindicated” by the inclusionary nature of the overall project. The local NAACP branch also endorsed it.

People gave up their neighborhood for a better way of life, and none of that happened,” Reese said. “That has been like a stone in the hearts of many people in our community. This is a wonderful opportunity for the city to move ahead.”

The Rays' ballpark is part of a wave of construction or renovation at sports venues across the country, including the Milwaukee Brewers, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans and the Oakland Athletics, who are planning to relocate to Las Vegas. Like the Rays, all of the projects come with millions of dollars in public funding that usually draws opposition.

The Rays' financing plan calls for the city to spend $417.5 million, including $287.5 million for the ballpark itself and $130 million in infrastructure for the larger redevelopment project that would include such things as sewage, traffic signals and roads. The city envisions no new or increased taxes.

Pinellas County, meanwhile, would spend about $312.5 million for its share of the ballpark costs. Officials say the county money will come from a bed tax largely funded by visitors that can be spent only on tourist-related and economic development expenses.

The Rays and Hines will be responsible for the remaining stadium costs — about $600 million — and any cost overruns during construction. The team would have naming rights to the ballpark, which could top $10 million a year.

Detractors in the Tampa Bay area, including a group called No Home Run, contend the Rays and Hines should pay rent to make up for potentially lost property tax dollars, split revenue with the city and county and be required to buy the prime downtown land at a fairer value.

“The only real goal in this project was for the Rays to get an incredible deal on a new stadium and to keep out all other lead developers so the Rays didn’t give up control,” wrote Alan Delisle, a former St. Petersburg city administrator, in a post on the No Home Run site. “They will always do what is in the best interest of the team and business. The City of St. Pete will always be secondary.”

Mayor Welch, however, said he and the project supporters are determined to see it through and that it has a real chance to transform the city, which has already changed dramatically from a sleepy retirement haven to a beacon for younger residents with a hip downtown not far from Gulf of Mexico beaches. After the ballpark opens, the rest is expected to be completed over about 20 years in several phases.

“I think we're in a much stronger, competitive position than we have ever been,” Welch said. “There's a tremendous amount of faith we'll get it right this time.”

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