Rays announce deal for new ballpark in St. Petersburg

After a decade and a half of hunting a new stadium and years of uncertainty, the Tampa Bay Rays announced Tuesday that they reached a deal with the city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County to build a new stadium on the same site as their current ballpark, Tropicana Field. The stadium is expected to begin construction next year and be completed in time for the start of the 2028 season. The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field ends in 2027, so pressure had been mounting for the team to decide whether it would be able to come to an agreement to stay in the Tampa area or have to move elsewhere.

“Major League Baseball is here to stay. Right here,” Rays owner Stu Sternberg said in a news conference at Tropicana Field on Tuesday morning, and all indications are that this time, after years of near misses, he is right. But the deal is not official: The St. Petersburg City Council and Pinellas County Commission must vote to approve the deal, which calls for each jurisdiction to contribute around half of $600 million in public funding, according to a team-issued press release. The Rays will pay the remainder of the estimated ballpark cost of $1.3 billion. The stadium will take up 17 acres of a planned 86-acre development.

“I think we’re in the seventh-inning stretch, if not warming (closer Pete) Fairbanks up,” team president Brian Auld told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday. “We’ve had stadium announcements before, so that’s a very fair question.

“But this one comes with a financing plan to it. One that’s been agreed to by both the mayor and the county administrator. So we are many, many innings ahead of where we’ve been able to get before.”

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The Rays spent nearly two decades hunting for a replacement for Tropicana Field, a process that included multiple failed attempts to secure funding and finalize plans in St. Petersburg. They asked local officials for permission to look in Tampa, across the bay, and explored options there, too. At one point, they even proposed a plan that would have them split home games between the Tampa area and Montreal, though Major League Baseball eventually made clear it wouldn’t approve an arrangement like that. A group in Orlando recently made a pitch to build them a ballpark there, too. The Rays heard them out, just in case. But Sternberg and Co. wanted to stay put if they could.

The current plan is to do just that, aided by a mixed-use development in the same district where Tropicana Field currently stands. But the agreement, like the one the Atlanta Braves got in Atlanta, calls for more than just a ballpark.

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Early in 2023, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch (D) chose the Rays and their development partner Hines to develop the area around a new ballpark with mixed-use square footage that includes affordable housing and other community-focused investments. The site sits in a historically Black neighborhood that was razed when a highway was built through it a half-century ago. The agreement announced Tuesday includes “a $50 million commitment to intentional equity initiatives in partnership with South St. Petersburg that include affordable housing funding, employment and business support, education programs and Minority/Women Owned Business Enterprises hiring commitments,” according to the team, in addition to a new home for the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum.

“I never doubted this day would come,” Welch said Tuesday morning, though he was certainly more optimistic than some. For years, the Rays struggled to draw fans to Tropicana Field even as they conjured winning teams from a relatively low budget. Low attendance and television ratings raised fair questions about the long-term viability of the Tampa market, particularly with a stadium located across the bay in St. Petersburg, a bit of a hike from Tampa proper.

But recently, team officials have said, the market is evolving. They believe an influx of residents during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as more general population growth, mean theirs is a market that will only grow more able to support an MLB team in the years to come. Indeed, the Rays are averaging nearly 4,000 more fans per game this year than last. They are counting on a brand new stadium in the heart of a freshly developed area providing further incentive for fans to make the trip.

Should the deal gain the approval necessary to finally, officially, keep the Rays in Tampa long-term, MLB will be able to move on, too. For years now, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has said that while he and the owners are open to expansion for the first time in a quarter century, they cannot explore it until the Rays and Oakland Athletics resolve long-standing uncertainty about their futures. The Rays appear to have nailed theirs down, though they still have a step or two to go. The A’s appear to have settled on moving to Las Vegas as soon as they can get a ballpark built, but their attempts to bludgeon a public funding bill through the Nevada legislature have been met with plenty of protest, and the owners have not approved a move for them just yet.

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But Manfred has made clear that unless the A’s have a stadium deal in place by the beginning of next year, they will lose access to the revenue sharing money the league provides each year. The expectation then, is that the franchise will have plans in place soon. Once they do, the league will likely start getting more serious about expansion, though individual groups in Nashville, Portland and elsewhere have been seriously outlining their pitches for years.

At this point, it does not seem any of those eager cities will have the chance to entice the Rays away from St. Petersburg, where the new domed stadium (featuring, among other things, the windows Tropicana Field notoriously lacks) should be finished by 2028.

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