Tampa Bay Times writer John Romano reported a full story in this morning's paper that progress is finally under way, and while his comments were incredibly vague, there was one nugget worth gleaming:
An agreement between the Rays and St. Petersburg that would allow the team to begin conversations about future stadium sites seems to be growing near, based on conversations with those involved.
Unlike a deal talked about under former Mayor Bill Foster, the latest agreement may not spell out the financial implications if the Rays leave Tropicana Field before its stadium use agreement ends in 2027. Instead, the team might be allowed to look at potential sites in Hillsborough County with further discussions in St. Pete to follow.
According to his sources, the new arrangement would allow the Rays to simply look elsewhere. No financial requirements attached, maybe not even an amendment to the lease, which prohibits such activity. Just... go ahead and look around? Why would the city give up it's leverage in the negotiation process?
Perhaps the bit about "further discussions in St. Pete to follow" means a sort of opportunity to one-up the best offer the Rays would receive elsewhere.
Romano notes two strong locations near the heart of Tampa: the West Shore region around Tampa International Airport (which is actually an expansive region of neighborhoods, office space, strip clubs and malls), or downtown at Channelside.
The article even specifically references the land surrounding Jefferson High, at the intersection of I-275 and the Veteran's Expressway, a seldom discussed option. Here are both identified on a map, and some important surrounding features:
The West Shore Business District had been previously identified as an ideal location by the ABC Coalition in 2010 for a Rays Stadium location, offers more surrounding entertainment than Downtown (save the struggling Channelside Mall), and sits at the heart of several highways and interstate, maybe even the most possible.
The exit at Lois, just right of the box placed around the 275 logo, is an opportunity for an expansive entrance to a stadium site, nestled between the popular exits for Dale Mabry Hwy and Westshore Blvd. This sort of traffic scenario will have even greater advantages with the widening of I-275, set to complete in the next two years.
Adding to the advantages of transportation, the Florida Department of Transportation already has plans to build a transit hub on the property across the street from Jefferson High School, a plot currently occupied by the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tampa Airport and Charley's Steakhouse on the north border of I-275. The hub will be called the West Shore Regional Multimodal Center, featuring bus connections with a planned expansion for "light rail" from Orlando, and is expected to include retail space.
According to The Tribune, the county would welcome the opportunity to open up the 60-acre plot of Jefferson High School (which shares facilities with two other smaller school) to business development, but only if new land could be provided to the School Board at "no cost."
Hillsborough Deputy Superintendent Cathy Valdes said school district officials are open to discussion as long as the plans come at no cost to them.
"That's a big tract of land," she said. "It's very valuable. We've told them we've got to operate our three schools. It can't cost us any money."
The expansive 60-acre footprint exceeds the land used by Tropicana Field and its controlled parking lots. As highlighted in the Tribune article, a meeting has already been scheduled by the Westshore Alliance with the Hillsborough County School Board on Sept. 30 to discuss relocation of the school.
In direct contrast, there is Downtown's Channelside, just above the Times Forum on the map, where the majority of the land has already been secured.
As we covered over the winter, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has partnered with the same group that built Coors Field in Colorado to buy land on the south side of Downtown Tampa, where tax money is still available from the city, but without Stadium prospects on the horizon, Vinik has also announced plans to begin developing office space with that land in the near future.
Doubt has begun creeping in that baseball and hockey would be a great marriage in the same location, something noted by one of the most vocal supporters of a new Rays stadium, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, as reported by the Times:
Buckhorn, who has talked to Vinik about the idea, has expressed doubts that a new ballpark would make business sense for Vinik.
For one thing, bringing in the Rays could hurt the Lightning's suite sales, advertising and ticket sales. And while an L.A. Live-style entertainment district could boost the value of Vinik's property, baseball teams in mid-sized markets typically don't pay much rent to the owners of their stadiums.
So while the mayor does not necessarily expect a stadium, he is looking for Vinik to follow up with plans for entertainment uses, residential and possibly more hotels.
"I think this is the first of some pretty exciting developments that will occur as a result of Jeff's ability to acquire that much land down there," he said. "I'm excited by it."
The Rays have already lost opportunities at the Florida Fairgrounds near the Ford Ampitheater, and at Carillon just a few weeks ago, where I-275 enters Pinellas County on the other side of the Bay. Neither of those sites, however, offered the surrounding corporate offices that Westshore and Channelside provide.
Until there is official news on a deal there is not much to report, but where there's smoke there's fire. If the Tampa Bay Times says there's been progress, negotiation tactics of lawyers aside, I'm inclined to believe them. With the clock ticking on Jeff Vinik's wall, progress couldn't come sooner.