Tourism event bridges beaches and baseball
Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld believes local partnerships, like those encompassed by Tropicana Field’s redevelopment plans, propel opportunities from Pinellas County’s beaches to Tampa Bay.
Auld headlined the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce’s annual Tourism Luncheon May 12 in celebration of National Tourism Week. This year’s theme was “Bridging the Beaches to the Bay.”
An extensive business expo preceded presentations at the Tradewinds Island Grand Resort in St. Pete Beach. Auld told hundreds of attendees – including Rep. Lindsay Cross, Commissioner Charlie Justice and several beach mayors and city officials – that “the mutual dependence and camaraderie” displayed at the event is lacking in cities like Dallas, Atlanta or Phoenix.
“Baseball and beaches are intimately and ultimately tied together because we share the same goals,” Auld said. “We need a strong economy; we want those visitors flocking to our region, enjoying our world-class hotels, eating in our restaurants, visiting our museums and, of course, attending our Tampa Bay Rays games.”
The local tourism industry and baseball team are flourishing. Steve Hayes, CEO of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, relayed that 15.4 million visitors spent over $6 billion in the county last year.
That number jumps to $11 billion when counting indirect economic impacts. Hayes added that tourists accounted for 6.6 million hotel bookings, supported 109,000 jobs and generated $423 million in taxes – a critical funding source for a new Rays stadium in St. Petersburg.
“When you hear of the industry talking about the importance of getting people to stay overnight here, that’s why it’s important,” Hayes said. “Because they’re spending more in the businesses. Tourism really is directed at small businesses.”
Auld noted the Rays are also setting records. The team recently established a new benchmark for longest overall and home winning streaks to start a season, and it continues to boast the best record in Major League Baseball.
He expressed that local leaders are building a vibrant community that understands the importance of protecting its natural resources, and it attracts new residents due to quality of life and business opportunities. Auld said Pinellas County continues becoming a better place to live, work and play, and “We are inarguably on the ascent together.”
He also highlighted efforts to increase environmental sustainability and transportation options. Auld called the SunRunner, Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit system, a “tremendous success” and said ridership numbers indicate people want to eschew cars when going to work, the beach, baseball games, and around St. Petersburg.
After the presentations, many attendees took the SunRunner downtown, and Auld hopes the first route “is only the beginning.” He noted that team officials supported “every single transit initiative that has come our way over the past decade.”
Auld said sports tourism represents about 15% of the industry’s economic impact. To illustrate his point, he relayed that a family from a small town in Wyoming chose Clearwater Beach for their first Florida trip and took an Uber to Tropicana Field for Opening Day.
“To them, being able to play on the beaches for the first time and see a Major League Baseball game was paradise,” Auld said. “It was truly special, and it’s something we all must remember not to take for granted.”
He detailed the team’s extensive commitment to supporting area nonprofits, businesses, the surrounding community and racial justice efforts. Auld said investing in the team’s staff is the “secret sauce” to fielding one of MLB’s most-winningest teams on one of its smallest payrolls.
While the franchise needs a new stadium – “the sooner, the better” – its leadership continues investing in Tropicana Field. He said it remains a “safe, clean and friendly place to watch a game.”
Auld credited an outpouring of local support for Mayor Ken Welch choosing the Rays/Hines group to redevelop the Historic Gas Plant District. He explained that the project must honor the site’s rich African American history, feature the “very best” in resilient and eco-friendly architecture and “push to be the most efficient and green development in North America.”
Auld said the development would utilize the latest technologies, serve as a critical cog in the local emergency management system, integrate “new and exciting” transit options and provide plenty of public art space. He called the 30,000-seat boutique stadium a “bona fide entertainment venue” capable of hosting various events throughout the year.
Developers realized its roof must only extend 250 feet above the field rather than soaring above the entire facility. Project officials call the “never before used city design” a pavilion.
“The perimeter of the stadium will only be a few floors above ground level with the tallest parts set back, similar to the high rises on Beach Drive,” Auld added. “That allows for far-superior integration of the surrounding community.”
He said the team and county’s best years lie ahead. Auld believes stakeholders realize that promise, and root for each other’s success more than other business communities.
Auld noted it is often difficult to dedicate resources to initiatives when it may take years or decades to realize the results. While slow processes can lead to frustration, he said advancements in tourism, transportation, equity and resiliency prove that those investments will eventually bear fruit.
“I, for one, cannot wait to see what the next 25 years look like,” Auld said. “As we give the entire world even more reasons to visit. As that family from Wyoming discovered, beaches and baseball are a great combination. And not one many places can lay claim to.”