Following Mayor Ken Welch’s selection of the Tampa Bay Rays to lead the redevelopment of Tropicana Field and the historic Gas Plant District, he compared the partnership to an engagement.
Welch told reporters at his press conference Monday that the city and the team are now moving towards a wedding. As such, he believes Rays officials should commit to St. Petersburg, particularly when one local entity – the Pinellas County Commission – is “helping pay for the wedding.”
About an hour later, Brian Auld and the Rays/Hines development team held a press conference at Tropicana Field. He told attendees they are “fully engaged” with city officials and will work aggressively to meet all timeline expectations and clear any potential hurdles.
“What we’ve done today is taken a big step forward in our hometown to finding a way to keep the team here for the very long term,” Auld said. “And that’s something we’re really proud of, and we intend to pursue it with gusto.”
He called it “a no-brainer” for team officials to participate in the 96-acre redevelopment and said they wanted to make the decision easy for the mayor. Their proposal helps cement the future of baseball in St. Petersburg, Auld said, while also meeting Welch’s requirement for an inclusive and equitable process.
Auld believes the development team achieved those goals and expressed his pride in the offseason win.
However, he added that “a lot needs to go right” before shovels are in the ground and stressed the importance of keeping an open dialogue with Tampa officials to ensure the team remains in the region long after the Tropicana Field lease expires in 2027.
Auld explained that Hines and Rays officials must still reach a development agreement with city administration, receive the city council’s approval and establish a financing plan in partnership with the Pinellas County Commission – as the bed tax is a critical funding aspect.
“But I don’t want to underestimate what a big step was taken today,” he said. “For St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.”
The Rays’ “robust” plan could change as negotiations progress, explained Auld, but he said the development team is ready for any potential hurdles. He declined to state how much public funding the team would need to move forward and said those discussions would continue in private.
Welch believes the Rays realize the benefits of connecting St. Petersburg’s growing downtown and the financial feasibility of staying in the city, and team officials decided it was the most viable option for a new stadium.
Auld said the city and region’s growth is encouraging for the team and Major League Baseball. He added that including a “world-class venue” amid a sprawling redevelopment spearheaded by leaders in their respective fields would give the team its best opportunity to increase attendance.
While Welch said city and team officials would reach a new stadium agreement midway through 2023, Auld remains unsure of a realistic timeline. He said team officials are ready to roll up their sleeves and “work as fast as possible.”
When asked if keeping conversations open with Tampa officials was a negotiation tactic, Auld took a second to collect his thoughts. He said there are many ways that team leadership could have, and still could, generate leverage – if that is all they cared about in the process.
“We need a plan that we have 100% certainty that it can be executed upon,” added Auld. “And until that, I think it would be irresponsible for us not to keep all of our options on the table.”
While Auld took a measured approach to formally committing to stay in St. Petersburg, City Councilmember Ed Montanari expressed his confidence that the team will remain on that side of the bay.
After the press conference, Montanari relayed that he has built close relationships with the team’s leadership and understands their love for St. Petersburg and willingness to stay. He also noted that they will now focus on an extensive negotiation process.
“It’s good for their organization, and we’re going to do the same thing,” added Montanari. “This is kind of like Opening Day of the season; we’ve got a long way to go. There’s going to be speed bumps that come along – and many negotiations – but I’m confident we can have a successful outcome at the end for everybody involved.”