Pinellas County tourism officials recently held an impromptu, off-agenda discussion regarding the ongoing quest to build a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium in downtown St. Petersburg.
Commission Chair Janet Long, who also heads the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC), sought her colleagues’ feedback regarding a project expected to top $1 billion. The political and business leaders who offered responses generally supported using local tourism taxes to foot about a third of the bill.
The TDC will review a funding proposal and offer its recommendation to the commission for final approval. Administrator Barry Burton has spearheaded county negotiations, and commissioners have met individually with team leadership over the past several months.
Those talks are reaching a crescendo. Long persuaded TDC members to extend an early September meeting with commissioners to discuss stadium updates and other off-agenda items broached at the Aug. 16 meeting.
“I do believe when you see the schematics of what the new stadium is proposed to look like and be – it will knock your socks off,” Long said. “So, I’m very anxious to begin those conversations with all of you.
“Give us a couple more weeks, and I think we’ll have lots of new and very exciting things to share.”
The unplanned TDC discussion represented a milestone of sorts. Local officials remain notoriously tight-lipped regarding the negotiation process and project updates.
However, for the first time since Mayor Ken Welch’s January selection of the Rays/Hines development team to transform the 86 downtown acres surrounding Tropicana Field, TDC members offered their thoughts publicly.
Michael Williams, managing director of Innisbrook Resort, said local leaders must “take the long view” and realize the team’s community impact. He said Tropicana Field’s “pitiful” attendance records underscore the need “for the right type of stadium – and the right type of public support.”
“I think, as a tourism board, we need to be actively engaged in supporting those efforts,” he added. “Yes, it’s expensive, but what good things aren’t? We need to get it done …”
Vice Chairman Russ Kimball, CEO of the Sheraton Sand Key Resort, expressed his desire to hear a funding proposal and move the process forward. He asked Long if the September commission meeting would include “these types of topics.”
She said it would, and county officials are in “deep discussion” regarding the “biggest thing on the agenda right now.” Chuck Prather, owner of downtown St. Pete’s Birchwood Hotel, stated his dismay that the TDC has yet to hold a formal stadium discussion.
“I’m just shocked that it’s August of 2023, and it’s still not on our agenda,” Prather said. “So, I was pleased to hear ‘soon.’”
“Very soon,” Long interjected.
She noted that local officials are reluctant to make public announcements due to the complex nature of negotiations. Long said stakeholders hope to finalize every detail before launching a public support campaign.
Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst said going to a Major League Baseball stadium must be an event. He noted that the Philadelphia Phillies’ ballpark – Clearwater hosts the team’s Spring Training games and a minor league affiliate – features myriad activities for various demographics.
He called Citizen’s Bank Park “the place to be” in Philadelphia and believes a local stadium must become a regional destination. He also opined on the wait for a proposal.
“My understanding is that it’s not the county’s fault that it has been delayed,” Aungst said. “And I’ll leave it at that.”
The City of St. Petersburg’s official response remains unchanged. Administrators are still conducting active negotiations and believe “it would be most prudent” to let the process conclude before sharing specifics or answering questions.
“We are hopeful to adhere to the previously released timeline, which would deliver a term sheet to our City Council for review this summer,” said City Spokesperson Erica Riggins in a prepared statement.
At the onset of the TDC’s discussion, Prather described the commission’s fraught position: While it doesn’t want the stigma attached to losing the county’s professional baseball franchise, he said that dedicating $300 million to one project would likely alienate voters.
“I’m empathetic, I guess, is why I had that look,” Prather added. “Because you’re going to please half the people and make half the people mad.”
Commissioners have also broached the idea of using additional bed tax dollars that could fund a new stadium for critically needed beach renourishment. Long told the TDC that county officials have identified potential operational changes that would “free up a lot of dollars” for those projects.
She also said design and permitting efforts to replenish the most severely eroded beaches are moving forward. The TDC’s newest member, Bellair Beach Mayor Dave Gattis, said the positive news would help mitigate stadium funding concerns.
“I truly believe you’re going to have less apprehension about discussing the Rays as this news travels and the projects begin to take hold,” Gattis said.