Early reaction from Tampa and Hillsborough County politicos about the decision by the Tampa Bay Rays to pursue a new Ybor City ballpark was positive, though it’s still very early in the process and a specific funding plan still needs to announced.
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg announced the team’s focus on an Ybor City location yesterday. If the Rays and local officials can successfully complete the effort, the new ballpark would be constructed at a 14-acre site north of Ybor Channel and open by either the 2022 or 2023 season.
Why Ybor City? The area is already a popular entertainment destination, and a new ballpark will certainly bring even more investment to the area. It’s easily accessible from downtown as well. The 14-acre site has already been acquired by an area nonprofit, Rays 2020, led by Tampa business leaders Ron Christaldi and Charles Sykes. That nonprofit is an important part of the equation: besides acquiring the land, businesspeople will use it to solicit more support from the local business community. From the Tampa Bay Times:
Friday’s announcement is the easy part. Finding ways to pay for a modern stadium that could cost $800 million will be difficult. The coordination between Tampa and Hillsborough County has to improve, and the effort to arrange the public financing portion of this project has to be transparent. The Rays also are going to have to kick in significantly more than the $150 million Sternberg has previously suggested to make the numbers work.
Still, the focus by the Rays and the region on Ybor City for a new stadium is a significant achievement toward securing the long-term future of the franchise in Tampa Bay. But it is not the first one. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council deserve credit for having the vision and courage to approve the agreement with the Rays that let the team look in both Hillsborough and Pinellas for the best stadium site. Without that deal, which expires in January, Tampa Bay would be at far greater risk of losing the Rays when the Tropicana Field lease expires in 2027, or even before.
Patrick Manteiga, the editor and publisher of the Ybor City-based weekly La Gaceta and a champion of all things Ybor, said it’s “fantastic” that the Rays are considering pulling up stakes in the historic district.
“I’m sure there’s going to be bumps on the road,” he said, referring to the design process which will include discussions about the height of a proposed park, as well as traffic and parking concerns.
“But at this moment, I don’t think it’s time to talk about the difficulties. I think it’s time to talk about how we need to get behind this effort, because there is going to be some heavy lifting.”
As you might expect, the reaction in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County was a little more muted. It’s safe to say there’s part of city management that actually wouldn’t mind if the Rays left. That would free up 86 acres of prime real estate used for Tropicana Field for new development–a great addition to the tax rolls that could stimulate other new development between the Trop and the core of downtown. Plus, with the Tampa Bay Rowdies (USL) a solid draw at Al Lang Stadium, there’s still the potential for sports dollars to be spent in the city. Mayor Rick Kriseman, who helped engineered the deal to allow the Rays to search for a ballpark site in Hillsborough, says the city wins no matter what, per tampabay.com:
Mayor Rick Kriseman has delivered a similar message for years: The city wins if the Rays stay. And it wins if they leave.
Former Mayor Bill Foster doesn’t share that view. It would hurt St. Petersburg to lose the Rays, he said, and Tampa should prepare itself for disappointment.
Not only will weekday games become an onerous trek for Pinellas fans, Foster said, but Hillsborough residents should “hold on to their wallets” helping finance a new stadium in Ybor City.
And Foster, who engaged in a bitter fight with the Rays over their desire to look for a stadium site in Hillsborough County when he was mayor from 2010-13, thinks it’s highly unlikely the team will ever break ground in Ybor.
For Foster, negotiating with Tampa and Hillsborough County is merely the first step to the team moving out of Tampa Bay–a very cynical view, to be sure.
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