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In 1986, St. Petersburg’s City Council voted to build a baseball stadium on the site of an African American neighborhood historically known as Cooper’s Quarters. More than 500 homes and three churches were condemned in the name of economic development that would never fully materialize.
The $309 million, taxpayer-funded stadium was completed in 1990. It hosted a series of events until 1996 when the Tampa Bay Rays signed a 30-year use agreement to make the stadium their home. The city spent $70 million in improvements to prepare the building for baseball. Yet after a few years, the Rays struggled to meet attendance goals. The neighborhood’s jobs base “never really recovered” according to County Commissioner Ken Welch.
The Rays no longer believe it’s viable to have a full-time team in Tampa Bay. The admission is the culmination of a 12-year quest for a new stadium that included a stint examining sites across the bay. Instead, the Rays have proposed a shared stadium concept with St. Pete and Montreal that was flatly rejected by Mayor Rick Kriseman and Commissioner Welch.
Some have alleged that the Rays are merely checking off the necessary boxes in expectation of a future move out of the region. “We tried to stay!” they can claim to the MLB. The Mayor hinted at growing distrust when the Rays first proposed the idea in June.
The Rays have rejected that characterization and insist that splitting the season is a win for everyone. St. Pete will enjoy throngs of Canadian tourists and a new open-air stadium will stimulate the city’s tax base. The Rays can improve on dismal revenues and retain more high-salary sluggers. The city can partly defray a $600 million stadium bill by using new property tax revenues from the redevelopment of the site.
In his letter rejecting the shared concept, Mayor Kriseman says the city is willing to discuss taxpayer contributions for a full-time stadium but will not contribute to a part-time team. The city “will begin to evaluate our next steps in redeveloping at least parts of the site” presumably before the Rays’ use agreement expires in 2027.
While tantalizing, there are obstacles to starting any meaningful development. The city has the right to sell pieces of the parking lot to a third-party developer. The Rays are even entitled to half of the profits. But developers crave certainty, and this is an inherently uncertain situation.
As Rays President Brian Auld recently pointed out, “It’s difficult to see a way that makes sense to start developing that 85-acre parcel in a coherent manner if you don’t know if, when and how long the team is going to be there.” How many hotel rooms do you develop with a baseball stadium? How many without? How will the streets lay out in each scenario?
Auld added that, “Given that we continue to believe the Tropicana Filed site is a very viable site for the team, we don’t want to hamstring our ability to make it a great home for us down the road.”
In other words, the Rays don’t want development on the site to get in the way of their shared stadium proposal. This strains credulity given the broad rejection of the concept. More likely the Rays realize that impeding development is the best way to extract concessions from the city. Or perhaps the Rays are hoping the next administration will be more amenable to their ideas. In any case, the Rays understand that the ambiguity of their future will deter private investment.
The solution might be for the city to act as developer and take on the risk of the uncertain site plan. Except the Rays have a right to act as a co-developer in any city-led development on the site. They could use that position to frustrate redevelopment.
It’s a stalemate. The City will not contribute to a part-time team and the Rays will not consider a new full-time stadium. A privately funded stadium is not in the cards. The Rays also rejected Mayor Kriseman’s offer to let them take another swing at sites in Hillsborough.
Given the realities of the negotiation and the legacy of the site, an amicable divorce is the best solution for all. The Rays should be allowed to explore new stadiums before 2027. In exchange, the team should relinquish its right to control development on the site and make a cash payment to the city. Their participation in the profits from a sale to a developer could burn off over time.
The alternative is eight more years of stagnation on the city’s single greatest opportunity for job creation. Uncertainty will remain until the Rays find a new home, but at least this way we can accelerate the process.
Millions in new annual revenues from 86 acres of redeveloped land have more deserving recipients than the Rays. The South St. Petersburg CRA, for example, borders the Trop. Once the Intown CRA pays off infrastructure improvements on the site, the South St. Petersburg CRA could be redrawn to capture the redevelopment’s incremental tax revenues.
Throwing more taxpayer money at a stadium that may or may not bring meaningful growth is reminiscent of the site’s well-intended, but ultimately failed legacy. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.