Could a new stadium be built at the Fairgrounds? The Rays recently have expressed a preference for sites near existing entertainment hubs, but the Fairgrounds site shouldn't be entirely dismissed.
The Florida Fairgrounds, located in eastern part of Hillsborough County along I-4, is often mentioned as a potential site for a Rays stadium. It’s convenient (by car) to many parts of the region and it has available land. Yet, the site never seems to make the short list when journalists and political leaders discuss the future of Tampa Bay baseball. We’ll review some of the pros and cons of a baseball stadium amidst the fried Twinkies.
The Florida Fairgrounds comprises 330 acres bordered by I-4, State Road 301, Martin Luther King Blvd and Orient Road. The Florida State Fair, which had previously been held elsewhere in Tampa, moved to the site in 1977. Since then, several permanent structures have been built, including an exhibit hall, an equestrian center, and the Mid Florida Credit Union Amphitheater (always the 1-800-Ask Gary Amphitheater in my heart).
The grounds are home, of course, to the Florida State Fair, which takes place every year in February. Some 550,000 people attend the fair each year, and it’s definitely worth a visit. Who knew how many different variety of citrus could be grown here, or how many different sorts of foods could be fried? The equestrian center is used all year, and the exhibit hall is rented out for trade shows and other events. Cracker Country, a living history museum, shares the site (think of the crossover branding opportunities!) The amphitheater is used some two to three dozen times a year for musical performances.
The grounds are managed by the Florida Fairgrounds Authority (FFA), a public authority whose board members are mostly named by the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, currently Adam Putman. The board hires staff who are charged with managing the venue.
Since perhaps the 1990s, FFA and Hillsborough County leadership has been eager to encourage further development of the area. For the FFA, the opportunity to earn new revenues is appealing, as the Authority is required to be self-sustaining and the State Fair is not the revenue producer it once was. Hillsborough County officials have seen the chance to create new amenities and generate tax revenues on an accessible site in a part of the county that has experienced rapid population growth.
Subsequently the FFA has put out several requests for proposals and had discussions with a few developers interested in the site, most recently in 2013-4. Their RFP documents suggest that at least 50 acres are currently surplus and available for immediate development, with another 70 or more acres potentially available if a developer were to help relocate some existing uses. Development proposals have included some residential, hotel and restaurant development , but have centered on building out the area with a mix of recreation and entertainment.
One developer, Republic Land Development of Virginia, had been reported to be in conversation with the FFA at least since the mid-2000s, hiring local heavy hitters like former Tampa mayor Dick Greco to lobby on their behalf. An early Republic proposal actually included a stadium on the site – it was labeled a "soccer stadium" in hopes of avoiding the wrath of the St. Petersburg city lawyers, but was considered to be a placeholder for a baseball stadium.
A more recent Republic proposal omitted the stadium, but included an amateur sports complex (known to be a pet project of Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan), an RV park (surely an anchor for any cosmopolitan urban development node) and a water park (lazy river, anyone?). The FFA rejected this most recent proposal, saying it lacked the "wow" factor. I have not seen any further efforts on the part of the FFA board to solicit new proposals, but since their chair apparently thinks Sunshine Laws shouldn't apply to him it's possible that these good folks have been mulling over proposals outside the public eye.
Advantages of the site
The best thing about this site is that it is pretty much the middle of nowhere. There’s not much around it to disturb. Little would need to be relocated, and the State Fair takes place during the off season. Amphitheater concerts could be scheduled around baseball, and neither the resident horses nor the adjoining Seminole Hard Rock Casino are likely to object to the traffic or noise (although to be sure the amphitheater did generate noise complaints when it first opened).
The land is all controlled by the FFA, so site acquisition should be pretty simple.
The site has good auto access. It borders I-4, close to the interchange with I-75. These highways provide connections to rapidly growing areas like the southern part of Hillsborough County, and northeast to the much discussed I-4 corridor linking Tampa and Orlando (more on that later). The ABC coalition, which studied stadium sites in 2009, estimated that the number of people living within the 30 minute drive radius was almost as high as it was for downtown Tampa and Westshore sites, although average incomes in the immediate vicinity were lower. The FFA's own research (from a 2013 document) studied a 25 mile radius and reached similar conclusions.
Disadvantages of the site
The worst thing about this site is that it’s pretty much the middle of nowhere. There is minimal commercial development in the area (the very self-contained Seminole Hard Rock Café and Casino, and a few hotels). Building there has a certain old school feel, hearkening back to the 1970s, when stadiums were built to maximize highway connections and parking convenience for suburbanites. This flies in the face of current planning wisdom, and the apparent preferences of the Rays, to locate stadiums in lively urban neighborhoods.
Being in the middle of nowhere means you also reduce that all important core of businesses likely to buy luxury boxes and group tickets for employees. If one of the key points of success for a new stadium would be attracting more corporate sponsors, leaving the downtown/Westshore nexus could reduce the appeal for businesses. Indeed, the site's drawbacks were spelled out most clearly by a representative for Republic Land Development in 2014, explaining to the FFA board why their hoped-for, revenue-generating "wow" factor vision could not be realized: "Hornstein cited parking challenges, a low median salary for the surrounding households, a lack of nearby restaurants and entertainment options to draw people into the area, and infrastructure challenges as barriers."
What about Orlampa?
Our DRB community is lucky to have several writers and commentators from the Orlando area, and they remind us that a convenient I-4 site would make Rays baseball more accessible for the 2.1 million Greater Orlando residents. We’ve heard for years about the robust development of the I-4 corridor and the emergence of the Orlampa mega-region; wouldn’t a Fairgrounds stadium allow the franchise to realize the benefits of these trends?
Well, not really. All the experts see the attendance "sweet spot" as those residents and businesses within a 30 minute drive radius of the venue.
According to Google maps, the closest part of the Orlando area, around Kissimmee and Celebration, is about a 70 minute drive to the Fairgrounds. If we account for the part of the Orlando area that extends north and east we find the drive is 80 or 90 minutes. The main effort to connect this region more efficiently, the high speed rail project, was scuttled in 2010, leaving the "Orlampa" region more a gleam in the planner’s eye than a reality. Will there be some Orlando Rays fans who will come to more games because it's now a 60 minute rather than a 90 minute drive? Sure. But let me add that the downtown Tampa sites would only add 10 minutes to the Orlando trip.
A Fairgrounds stadium doesn’t seem to generate wild enthusiasm from anyone, but it has a few very attractive features, including available land under the control of a single public agency. And who knows:perhaps our region is so far from being walkable and transit-focused that we would be better served by a stadium whose nearest neighbor is a highway interchange.
A fully built out Fairgrounds area could include other commercial and redevelopment activities that could make this stadium more of a destination, should all the pieces fall into place. But it would certainly be quite an undertaking - financial as well as logistical - to generate such a critical mass of development activity in a short period of time.
At this point, the Fairgrounds would appear to be at best a "plan B" as the Rays consider their options.