Rays: 'We want to be playing baseball' in Ybor

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Lauding Ybor City’s “soul, grit, and rich baseball history,” the Tampa Bay Rays confirmed plans to move from St. Petersburg to Tampa as soon as possible. But all major stakeholders acknowledged the details – especially those involving financing of the new stadium – still need to be worked out.

A team of business leaders and local politicians joined Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg for Friday’s announcement of the ‘Tampa Bay Rays 2020’ group, whose main goal will be drumming up corporate backing for a project that could cost $800-million or more.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this community supports a new ballpark in Tampa,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan offered.  “We’re about to get very serious in identifying that community and corporate support.”

Hagan shared details of the proposed stadium site last fall: A 14-acre plot of land not far from the Port of Tampa and bounded by Channelside Drive on the west, 4th Avenue on the north, 15th Street on the east, and Adamo Drive on the south.

The Rays had not commented on that location – or any other possibility – until Sternberg called it the team’s “sole focus” on Friday.

“It represents the finest opportunity for Major League Baseball to thrive in this region for generations to come,” he said. “This is where we want to be playing baseball.”

Chuck Sykes, Ron Christaldi and Richard Gonzmart were among the local business leaders on hand to lend support to the effort.  Sykes explained that most teams’ lucrative season-ticket base is roughly two-thirds corporate clients and only one-third general public.  But the Rays’ current setup is the opposite, which he blamed on Tropicana Field and its location.

The team’s lease with the city of St. Petersburg ties them to the Trop site until 2027, but St. Pete broke a stalemate with the team in 2016 by agreeing to a potential buyout option.  That buyout would be as high as $24-million if the Rays left the county, with reduced amounts if they stayed within St. Pete.

Notably absent from Fridays’ announcement was St. Pete mayor Rick Kriseman, who said yesterday that he still believes the Trop site is the team’s best option, but he was pressing forward with plans to redevelop the area without a stadium.

“We owe a great deal of gratitude to Mayor Rick Kriseman for having the fortitude and the courage to do the right thing for the right reasons,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, acknowledging his counterpart across the bay. “To give this region – not just St. Pete, but this region – the opportunity to compete to ensure that the Rays stayed in the Bay Area.  That took a lot of guts.”

Buckhorn pledged to avoid a repeat of the financing plan for Raymond James Stadium, which was largely funded by taxpayer dollars.  “This transaction will not look anything like that,” he insisted.

But no one was immediately able to say what the plan would, in fact, look like.  For the Rays’ part, Sternberg was willing to commit to investing “a good amount of money,” but declined to offer specifics, pointing out that the stadium had yet to even be designed.

Sternberg did say that many of the same people who designed the never-built waterfront St. Pete stadium are still with the team and would be involved in creating an Ybor proposal.

The head of Ybor's development board is concerned that using the land at Channelside and Adamo for a stadium would mean they couldn't build apartments and stores to add to the tax rolls to fund infrastructure improvements.

"Unfortunately, sports stadiums are usually tax exempt, they don't bring in that tax revenue we were expecting to see," said Tony LaColla, the chair of the board for the Ybor City Development Corporation.

Another question about the Rays in Ybor is traffic. 

How do they funnel tens of thousands of cars towards a stadium in an area where the street grid is already complicated? 

Residents in Channelside would like an answer.

"Have your ACs on," said David Escalate. "It's going to be stop and go."

In the meantime, Mayor Buckhorn promised cooperation and, with a wink to Hagan, a minimum of “drama” in the process.

“The Rays deserve our best efforts,” he added.  “We don’t know what the outcome will be, but I can certainly tell you from the city’s perspective, we’re going to put our best minds to the task.”

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