Until last week, there had been few new developments in the Rays stadium saga. The City of St. Petersburg had selected the current 80-acres of Tropicana Field for a proposed stadium-office-retail complex — with the new Suntrust Park development in Atlanta as an example — while a Hillsborough site was nowhere to be found.
That changed with the recent surprise announcement that County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has spearheaded the Rays Stadium search in Hillsborough County, had identified a 14-acre plot on the edge of Ybor City.
With the options narrowed, the Rays could now assess these two sites, and choose which county/city government they would work with to build a replacement for Tropicana Field.
In theory, anyway. But it’s a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface.
There are a lot of players on both sides of the Bay and they don’t always seem to talk to each other. We have mayors who may be at odds with their own city councilmembers. We have county commissioners who may not consult with their colleagues or with county staff. And certainly county and city office holders all have their own — sometimes competing — agendas. The control of land, access to local revenues, and federal subsidies are almost entirely determined by this large and contentious cast of characters.
Pinellas County and St. Petersburg, to date, bring a lot to the table. They have access to financial support (most of it from the same tourism tax revenue streams used to pay off the debt for Tropicana Field), 80-acres of available land in an area that has become increasingly dynamic (have you been the Central Avenue lately?), and at the moment their political system from top to bottom seems to have a startling degree of consensus, as led by St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman** and his Baseball Forever coalition.
So why aren’t the Rays rushing to sign on to St. Pete’s proposal?
By now, Rays fans should be all too aware of the drawbacks of Baseball in the ‘Burg.
The current Trop site can only offer 10% of Tampa Bay’s population within a 30-min drive to the stadium, a significant factor in attendance, and with Pinellas County largely built out, the population near Tropicana Field will not be increasing. Additionally, for all its charms, St. Pete is not a corporate center, and we’ve seen that Tampa corporations have not rushed to support a Pinellas County baseball team.
Hillsborough County has the location, with downtown Tampa serving as the commercial epicenter of the Tampa Bay region. Ybor sits close to corporate centers in downtown Tampa, Westshore and the USF area, and is central to the growing residential communities south, east, north, and within the city.
However, the proposed site’s 14-acres will fit only a stadium, with local government and the team having little control over potential auxiliary development outside the stadium footprint.
Perhaps most importantly, Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa are hurting for funds to back a stadium project, and there’s little indication that city and county officials are, like their Pinellas counterparts, in accord about how to proceed.
But that final roadblock is an important one. The Rays will need the support of city, county, and public sector leaders, as well as civic and business leaders, to build a baseball stadium. This currently does not exist in Hillsborough County.
County Commissioner Hagan, in our view, takes some of the heat for this disarray.
Of course we are mindful of the ongoing tensions between city and county governments in this area, as well as the typical friction that can be found between county commissioners who represent different constituents and different ideologies. Commissioner Hagan didn’t create those personal and institutional sources of friction. But this project will not succeed if he does not take ownership of these political deficiencies and work hard to overcome them.
But this is also why we are concerned to read statements from Mayor Buckhorn suggesting that the announced Ybor site was news to him:
"From a land use perspective this is a great location," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn wrote in a statement. "While the city was not aware of Commissioner Hagan's announcement, we look forward to hearing how Hillsborough County plans to pay for it."
Even worse, Commissioner Hagan’s county colleagues also seemed nonplussed by his announcement. Even County Manager Mike Merrill, who in essence works for the commissioners, seemed to cast doubt on the message Commissioner Hagan (who did not stick around for questions after the County’s most recent meeting) had wanted to convey:
This was the Rays' choice. ... This wasn't this board's choice. It wasn't my choice... It was not correct the way the media has represented that this was a county or even county board choice.
In fairness, the Hillsborough County Commissioners had named Hagan to be the point person for all things baseball last year, but apparently they had not expected him to make a public announcement about a site without mentioning it to them first.
It would appear Commissioner Hagan moved too quickly to announce this site, surprising the Rays, confusing his colleagues and undercutting Tampa city officials whose support is also needed.
And as of this publishing, Hillsborough County, unlike their PInellas counterparts, has no site architectural or transportation plan and, more damning, no financing plan, so the public has little opportunity to assess the viability of this site for a stadium.
Commissioner Hagan appears to have done well to assemble corporate leaders to help shepherd the transfer of land to make a Rays stadium possible, but nothing else has been announced.
Let’s be clear: we wish Commissioner Hagan nothing but success in his attempts to put together a competitive bid for a new Rays stadium. We want the Rays to stay in the area, and we want to watch them from our comfy seats in a stadium we can love.
We are agnostic on the location, so we have a rooting interest in seeing Commissioner Hagan do this right, but doing this right means doing it cooperatively, with key stakeholders and veto players brought to the table sooner rather than later.
** Worth noting: St. Petersburg’s municipal elections will be held next week, so this last point is subject to change. Mayor Kriseman was elected on a platform that included allowing a Rays stadium search in order to prove the Rays would ultimately choose St. Petersburg if given several options. His re-election may hinge on whether voters think he’s right on that assertion.