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 morning 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.”
The stadium, part of 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 windows and “operable walls to bring the outside in,” plus what the team says will be state-of-the-art amenities for fans and players.
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 St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch and Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton require approval by the city council and county commission, which Auld said they are confident of getting with a goal of breaking ground around this time next year.
Auld said Major League Baseball is also on board with the plan, as commissioner Rob Manfred met recently with city and county leaders earlier this month.
“He expressed enthusiasm and appreciation for their enthusiasm, and they were very thoughtful in saying how important the Rays and Major League Baseball are to this community in this region,” Auld said. “So we’re moving forward with a lot of smiles.”
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.
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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 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.”
The Pinellas County commission vote is expected to be first, potentially before the end of this year. The city, which is also involved in the complicated redevelopment agreement, would likely do so early in 2024.
“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 share, 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.
“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/work force 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 nearly 50%, from 859 to 1,200, which was a priority for Welch. 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 to move back — and 600 off-site at a location to be determined.
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 market place and affordable housing units, a full-service hotel with conference space and the first office building.
Harrison said this will be the largest current project Hines has underway in the United States.
“We’re thrilled,” he said. “I can’t think of a better partner for Hines to have … the partnership we’ve created with (the Rays), and the friendships we’ve created with them, you can’t replicate that. …
“To have the opportunity to be involved in a city-defining project like this, a multi-generational project, it’s both a thrill and a privilege. We couldn’t be more excited to be working on this project.”
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