The first public discussion between Mayor Ken Welch, Tampa Bay Rays representatives and city council members on their quest to redevelop Tropicana Field began on a positive note.
The public-private partners acknowledged the decade-long journey that preceded the Oct. 26 Committee of the Whole meeting. Many noted that the details surrounding plans to build a $1.3 billion ballpark would have lasting effects on the city.
While the first half of the four-hour meeting focused on what it will take to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg, the new stadium will anchor the Historic Gas Plant District’s $6.5 billion redevelopment. Welch said his calm demeanor belied his excitement.
“It’s worth noting how far we’ve come,” Welch said. “The future of the Rays can now be viewed with certainty. I was thinking what some of our previous mayors would’ve said about today.”
Project stakeholders then got down to business.
The team is pushing for swift approval of a financing plan for the 30,000-seat ballpark, as their Tropicana Field lease expires in 2027. City officials have committed $287.5 million to building a new stadium and $130 million for the surrounding redevelopment’s infrastructure.
The municipal investment will come from tax-exempt bond issuances. However, multiple council members said that is still public funding and sought answers to pointed questions before they would offer support.
Many of those details remain unknown or undecided, and the Rays must begin the design phase next month to meet the Opening Day 2028 target date.
City officials must approve myriad final agreements in March to start construction in November 2024. Rays co-president Brian Auld stressed the timeline’s importance.
“If we miss that opening date, this entire endeavor becomes impossible,” Auld said. “We cannot put these dates at risk along the way.”
While most of the council signaled their eventual support for a deal, there were significant concerns. Councilmember Richie Floyd noted that several studies found no evidence that publicly subsidized stadiums provide lasting community benefits.
City Administrator Rob Gerdes said every expansive development needs a catalyst. Floyd pushed back on that assertion and said he would like the Rays to anchor the project “but not at the expense of the city.”
Floyd used Cobb County, Georgia’s $300 million public subsidy for an Atlanta Braves ballpark as a recent example. A study found that anticipated tax revenue was less than expected, and county officials raised property tax rates to cover expenses.
“My concern is the public side of things,” Floyd concluded. “Because otherwise … it represents a transfer of wealth from the public to the private, and that’s not what I’m here for.”
Pinellas County, which is contributing $312.5 million in tourism tax dollars to the stadium, and St. Petersburg administrators hired David Abrams, a consultant with Inner Circle Sports. Abrams is also a professor at New York University.
He said stadium benefit studies typically include outdated information. Abrams added that many did not feature surrounding mixed-use developments.
He explained that the Braves, unlike the Rays, are not responsible for operational costs, maintenance and stadium upgrades. “What you’ve got is 30 years of partnership, which is going to materialize in a whole different landscape for the community.”
Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz questioned whether administrators considered an alternative to anchor the redevelopment. She also noted that administrators would forego property tax revenues on the 17-to 20-acre stadium site.
The city does not receive those taxes on Tropicana Field and its sprawling surface parking lots, either. “We’re turning that asphalt into jobs, into housing, into $50 million of economic benefits that will help rebuild the Black business community that was dislocated in spurts and never did recover,” Welch said.
“It does all of those things in a way that we can afford,” Welch added. “It was never about the benefit of baseball – as significant as it is to the community – it’s about honoring those promises that go back 40 years.”
Michael Harrison, senior managing director of Hines, said he threw the previous mayoral administration’s request for proposals (RFP) “in the trash” because it didn’t include the Rays. He said the global development firm creates places “that attract people like a magnet,” something only possible in St. Pete with the team.
Councilmember John Muhammad questioned how the city could justify stadium spending amid an affordable housing crisis. Welch noted the redevelopment would provide 1,200 units and 7,000 permanent jobs and that administrators allocated $45 million in federal funding to housing initiatives.
Gerdes explained that the city can borrow its contribution due to an expected $680 million return on investment. “Even if our investment was a wash … we get all the economic development, all the housing, all the promises of the Gas Plant – and we’re getting our money back to pay the debt service,” he added.
Councilmember Gina Driscoll expressed gratitude to participate in a transformational endeavor. She also questioned the “critical” project timeline.
Burton said detailed negotiations remain and could not commit to presenting several necessary contracts by March 1. He will provide all documentation to the council at another Committee of the Whole meeting in early 2024 before they take a final vote.
“I’m very relieved that we are moving forward on this historic site with a partner in the Rays,” said Council Chair Brandi Gabbard. “It’s so much more than baseball – it’s about having a partner that understands our hometown because they grew up in our hometown.”