St. Petersburg is down to its last at-bat to provide a permanent home for the Rays, and as promised throughout his campaign and first month in office, Mayor Ken Welch is swinging for the fences.
During the St. Petersburg Economic Development Council’s (EDC) 5th annual meeting Thursday, Welch took to the podium inside the Don CeSar to officially announce that the city is fighting to keep its only major professional sports franchise.
“I met yesterday with the Deputy Mayor and Rays’ leadership and county leadership, I’ve also met with the city council. I’m really excited to tell you St. Pete is back in the game to keep our Rays,” Welch said. “We look forward to many more conversations.”
Welch added that he is still enamored with the concept of a waterfront ballpark. During the State of the Bay summit last week, Welch said a waterfront stadium would be “iconic and unmatched” and that “we need to take a shot at it.”
Welch also shared the news on his social media accounts, prompting a congratulatory response for his leadership on the matter from former councilmember and mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon. Welch replied that he looks forward to working with Blackmon on the effort to keep the team.
County Commission Chair Charlie Justice took part in Wednesday’s meeting with the Rays. He called the meeting an opportunity for everyone involved to touch base, as it was the first time he met with team officials since becoming commission chair in January. He said it was an opportunity to see where everyone stood following Major League Baseball’s decision to cancel plans for a split season.
“It seemed like the Rays – and I don’t want to speak for them – but they’re kind of reevaluating the circumstances,” said Justice. “I think they were all-in on the split season idea, and when Major League Baseball said no, they kind of just have to go, ‘alright, what do we do next.'”
During the EDC event, Rays President Brian Auld told the St. Pete Catalyst that the Rays are looking at all options on the table, which includes a waterfront ballpark.
The news on retaining the Rays comes as the team’s lease at Tropicana Field inches closer to its termination in 2027. In late January, Major League Baseball’s Executive Council decided to end the team’s ongoing efforts to build new, open-air stadiums in both Tampa Bay and Montreal. If Rays owner Stuart Sternberg’s comments at the subsequent press conference are any indication, city officials may need the help of area fans to secure the franchise’s future in St. Petersburg.
“We’ll see how the stands look this year and the support we get, and that’s going to help inform us as well going forward on our plans,” said Sternberg.
Although plans for a split season in Montreal are off the table, St. Pete still must contend with the City of Tampa recruiting the Rays to their side of the bay.
“We are looking at a location in Tampa to house the Rays on a full-time basis, and I’m sure that’s the same thing you’ll hear from Mayor Welch,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said at State of the Bay. “I have also been very consistent that there is a bottom line, that we will make a presentation, a proposal that will be in the best interest of our community.”
At the event, held last Friday, Welch said he is renewing relationships between the mayor’s office, the city council, Pinellas County Commissioners and the Rays in an effort to create a proposal beneficial to all parties. Just four business days later, Welch announced those parties held a productive meeting together.
Whether St. Pete hits a homerun and keeps the team remains unknown. However, one thing is for certain – the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site.
“At the Trop, the former Gas Plant neighborhood, we have the opportunity not only to attract new jobs and boost our economy but to ensure the progress is shared [and benefited] by every member of our community,” Welch said during the EDC event Thursday.
Former Mayor Rick Kriseman selected Midtown Development as the master developer to redevelop the 86-acre Trop site.
Welch recently made comments on how he is going back to the drawing board to choose the development team who most prioritizes equitable opportunities at the site. A waterfront ballpark, similar to proposals in 2008 at Al Lang Stadium – which the Rays also own – would leave exponentially more space for affordable housing and equitable commerce.
“I’ve been engaged in this whole process to the selection of the master developer … I really think the Kriseman administration did a great job in developing the RFP, it focused on those 21 points and equity was quo to that,” Welch said.
“I want to push harder on the master developer that I select to make sure they make a significant investment in the community,” Welch said. “You’re talking about billions of dollars over the decades that will come through there. I’m not looking for a symbolic notion toward checking a box for equity. I want something to be built in, substantial and generational as well.”