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Is is Time to Start Eliminating Potential Rays Ballpark Sites?

Tampa Bay RaysWith at least 17 options on the table, it’s time to start eliminating potential Rays ballpark sites — and it sound like the team and elected officials are doing just that, with one high-profile location apparently off the list.

Some elected officials had pushed the Florida State Fairgrounds as a potential location for the new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark: there is plenty of available land and freeway access. But with a location on the eastern side of Tampa Bay, much of the potential Rays audience in Pinellas County would have a hard time making a game during rush hour, and there’s little chance of redevelopment in the general area. Both factors are apparently making this a nonstarter, though the Rays are loathe to formally eliminate any site from consideration, per the Tampa Bay Times:

“I wouldn’t say anything is out of the running,” [Rays president Brian] Auld said. “We always talk about finding the pitch-perfect place. Our initial thoughts are that the fairgrounds probably is not it, so we want to explore as many options as possible. But we know we need to remain practical through this entire process as well.”

Other potential locations reportedly include the Tampa Park Apartments site near downtown, the Jefferson High School site in West Shore, the Tampa Greyhound Track and docks near Ybor City now used by International Ship Repair. Another site, the ConAgra flour mill near downtown, is generally seen as too small and too expensive, since the mill would have to be moved somewhere else.

Auld said the team’s market research is continuing but has found support for the idea of a ballpark with community features such as a training facility that’s used by a local university, for instance, or kitchen facilities open to culinary education programs.

“We’re hearing from a majority of our fan base and people throughout the Tampa Bay area that the idea of a 365-day-a-year active ballpark is really exciting,” Auld said. “I think people want to do all sorts of activities in and around the ballpark.”

Indeed: the Rays may have already eliminated more than just the Fairgrounds from serious consideration. A survey going out to fans focuses on just four potential ballpark locations: downtown St. Petersburg, downtown Tampa, Westshore and mid-Pinellas County. From the Tampa Bay Business Journal:

It not only asks fans to rank just four possible stadium markets, it asks whether or not they’d be more or less likely to go to games if the team had a new home and if they were supportive of building a new stadium in general.

Those questions indicate the team is taking a hard look at how much playing baseball in an aging stadium is affecting poor attendance. Other questions revolve around ticket prices, game day convenience, traffic and whether or not there are enough fan amenities like concessions, Wi-Fi and social settings. Suggestions include smartphone apps to order food or merchandise from the stands or interactive in-game content.

It also asks which other event fans would be likely to attend including college sports, concerts, family events and professional soccer matches. Rays leaders want to build a stadium that could be utilized year-round even when the team isn’t playing there. The team plays about 80 home games a year, more if it makes the playoffs.

Such polling, of course, shouldn’t be surprising for an organization known for being driven by data. And such data can be useful in planning a new ballpark to make sure that something cool isn’t missed. But a great ballpark design shouldn’t be based purely on data: there’s always some great imagination and even a sense of whimsy involved with every great ballpark. The Rays are lucky to have a blank slate at this point in the ballpark design.

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