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St. Petersburg City Council airs Rays stadium concerns

Mark Parker

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Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz (right) asked "probing" questions regarding a stadium deal with the Tampa Bay Rays and Hines development firm. Councilmember Ed Montanari looks on at the Oct. 26 Committee of the Whole meeting. Screengrab.

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.”

From left: City Administrator Rob Gerdes, Mayor Ken Welch and Rays co-presidents Brian Auld and Matt Silverman. Photo by Mark Parker.

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.”

Mayor Ken Welch expressed his excitement for Thursday’s discussion. City Administrator Rob Gerdes (right) credited County Administrator Barry Burton’s work through the negotiation process. Screengrab.

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.”

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    October 30, 2023at8:56 pm

    I am not happy with Luxury apartments being built there. All should be Affordable. Someone said the Rays are buying the land for the stadium to be built on, first I ever heard of that. We begged the City to maintain ownership of the land. How mu h is the Rays investment??? Noone ever ever stated the Rays contribution in dollars????

  2. Avatar

    Hugh J. Hazeltine

    October 30, 2023at1:03 pm

    City Administrator Rob Gerdes expects a $680M return on the $427.5M Tax exempt Bond the city will need to float to finance this commitment. The same could be said of a bond issued for Marina rehab that it would have a positive return on investment. Private companies have recognized this and that is why they have bid on it.

  3. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    October 27, 2023at11:56 pm

    Well, there’s one thing Richie Floyd and I agree on.
    Forget the Rays and their timeline! Sounds pretty entitled coming from someone asking for $600 million of taxpayer funding.
    This is a bad deal for the citizens of St. Pete. We will be left holding the bag when the Rays can’t pay their bonds. Property taxes will be raised to subsidize this team. End it now. Let the lease end.

  4. Avatar

    Paul Loverne

    October 27, 2023at11:00 pm

    Sometimes it takes spending money to have something nice. Make St. Pete even more of a destination for citizens and tourists alike. Scare tactics are used to turn people away from supporting the development. Citizens won’t even miss the money used for this venture. I support the project and hope to see a more vibrant city in the near future.

  5. Avatar

    Danny E White

    October 27, 2023at4:44 pm

    The opportunity here is to stop the haggling, grappling, speculation, suspicion, and such to move forward with a redevelopment that has lingered for over a decade. No term sheet is going to satisfy every single citizen or entity. I do not believe anyone at the table at this juncture has an ulterior motive. What I fear is that the constant back and forth over minutia will eventually derail the whole project, which would be a shame beyond measure. Let’s go Rays! Let’s go Mayor Welch! Let’s go Hines!

  6. Avatar

    Kari M

    October 27, 2023at4:12 pm

    The information on the details of the Rays/Hines deal should have been provided much earlier. This is a massive tax expenditure. The public needs to know the terms of the deal. All the questions raised were 100% valid and the answers were not satisfactory. Why are the Rays buying the land at such a big discount at an appraised price from two years ago? The land is much more valuable now. Why are the Rays not paying taxes until the individual buildings are completed? They should pay market rate based on the date of sale and start paying taxes immediately. Just like regular taxpayers. Just say no to corporate welfare for billionaires and developers.

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