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One year later, the Rays continue their Stadium search

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After a year of hunting, the Rays still haven't found a new home

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This week marks the one-year anniversary since the City of St. Petersburg gave the Rays permission to consider stadium sites anywhere in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties. Although there has yet to be any public announcement of a proposed site, the Rays and public officials on both sides of Tampa Bay have been active.

Let’s review.

Potential Sites in Pinellas County

City officials in St. Petersburg and Oldsmar have discussed stadium sites with the team. We covered Oldmar’s proposal here. The Derby Lane facility has also been mentioned as a potential Pinellas site, but no serious planning for that site seems to have moved forward.

St. Petersburg contracted with the New York-based architectural firm HKS to create a master plan for the 85 acre Tropicana site. Their plan would not just build a new stadium, but also reconsider transportation access and catalyze additional commercial and residential development with the goal of not repeating the mistakes that plagued the Trop.

Two elements of the plan suggest that the HKS team was not from around here: 1. their plan calls for an open air stadium (those August day games should be fun), and 2. it initially called for demolishing I-175 with the crazy notion that highways aren’t good for the urban fabric (this idea was quickly dropped). [Note: Commentor Ateek kindly pointed out that the rendering in the HKS plan merely included a generic placeholder stadium as was not meant to suggest that a new stadium would indeed be open air.]

Potential Sites in Hillsborough County

A number of sites have been discussed in the Tampa/Hillsborough region. Rays leadership has held several meetings with county and city officials, with County Commissioner Ken Hagan seeming to take the lead on the public sector side. Neither the Rays nor any public officials have shared information about which sites are highest on the priority list, although the Fairgrounds site seems to have been eliminated.

A Tampa Bay Times public records search, however, provides evidence that discussions are serious: a reporter tracked the meetings and invoices from Foley & Lardner, a Wisconsin based firm known for its work with MLB, which the county has retained to address stadium related issues, and noted that the pace of their activity was accelerating.

Commissioner Hagan, speaking in September, estimated that a site would probably be announced in about six months, which would put such an announcement in March of this year.

Stadium Design

Early in the process, the Rays began to share vision of a stadium, inviting the public to contribute ideas. They created a Ballpark Reimagined website where fans can tell the team what they want to see in a new stadium (the site is still active, so it’s not too late to add your Lazy River design ideas!).

The Rays have also held focus groups among various stakeholders. Among the elements that seem likely to be included: a stadium that can have non-baseball uses; one that is on the smaller end of major league stadium capacities (characteristics that make both economic and design/planning sense); and one that fits well with its surroundings.

Financing

This is and will probably remain the stickiest issue for stadium development. The Rays have made clear that they will be asking for some public money. And public leaders and taxpayers are probably not enthusiastic about providing it.

There is no new information about how this stadium will be financed, but there have been some developments that are likely to be germane to the discussion.

First, the State of Florida doesn’t look like it will be a source of funds. The Florida state legislature seems poised to end a program that allowed professional sports franchises to apply for stadium improvement funding – and this program had been instituted to move away from a slew of individual team requests for stadium development and improvement funds.

The new Speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran, has taken aim at all manner of state subsidies for private enterprise, including Rick Scott’s tourism and economic development offices. It seems very unlikely that Tallahassee will be writing checks for a Tampa Bay stadium in the near future.

On the other hand, both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are coming off of record-setting tourism industry years, with associated boosts to bed tax revenues. As tourism taxes are often seen as “painless” means of funding sports venues, the healthy tourism numbers in these counties could offer opportunities to underwrite some stadium development costs in the coming years.

But wait, what about these Montreal rumors?

In November, three tweets from a Montreal-based “independent journalist” named Pierre Trudel made the claim that Stu Sternberg was financing a feasibility study for building a baseball stadium in the Griffin Town area of Montreal (see here for links to the tweets and a summary). The Tampa Bay press reported this and sought to follow up (you can see a tweet from Noah Pranksy asking Trudel for further information but he doesn’t seem to have provided it).

Meanwhile, Brian Auld’s non-response didn’t exactly put the rumors to bed:

While there continues to be speculation surrounding the Rays future, we remain committed to keeping Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come.

But without any further information from Trudel or other sources, there’s no basis to conclude that Sternberg or the Rays were the ones to have paid for any such study, although he may be happy to allow the rumors to percolate while he negotiates terms with local governments.

Conclusion

The Rays silence on specific sites thus far is not surprising — developing a plan for a new stadium will take some time the team has an interest in keeping their top sites under wraps as long as possible.

I would assume, based on the Rays publicly stated priorities, that centrally located Tampa sites would be their top choices, but the complications surrounding site acquisition (discussed in our earlier posts) and the uncertainties over public funding streams quite likely keep some otherwise less ideal Pinellas sites in the running.