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Rays Stadium Search: St. Petersburg stadium proposal released

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St. Pete makes its pitch to keep Rays at current site

Since the St. Petersburg City Council gave the Rays permission to search outside the city (but within the Pinellas-Hillsborough County lines) for a stadium site, many of us who follow this issue have turned our attention to potential sites in Tampa/Hillsborough County.

But the Rays could well elect to remain in Pinellas County, and boosters of City of St. Petersburg, led by Mayor Rick Kriseman, think they already know the best location for a new Rays home. It’s essentially in the parking lot of the current Tropicana Field.

A collaboration between the City of St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, Baseball Forever is an initiative aimed at keeping the Rays in the city. They have put together a proposal that makes the case that St. Petersburg is a great market for baseball, and that describes in very broad terms a redevelopment scheme in which Tropicana Field would be razed, with a new stadium to be built to the northeast (e.g. closer to downtown) of the current stadium. The remainder of the site would include parking and some preserved open space, but would largely be available for redevelopment.

The specifics of that redevelopment remain vague (as would be expected at this point). The proposal talks about hotels and restaurants, retail and offices; housing and research facilities. You can view the architect’s Master Plan for the 85-acres here.

Both the end uses (other than baseball) and design of the site would not be determined for some time.

But that redevelopment is key.

  • First, the proceeds from selling some of the available land to outside developers creates the potential for the city to generate one time revenues that could contribute to stadium construction. As Kriseman has pledged not to impose any new taxes to cover any city contributions, the ability to generate capital with land sales is very important.
  • Second, the potential to catalyze extensive redevelopment in the current Tropicana Field could generate additional funds via Tax Increment Financing (TIF) tools (the stadium site is already part of the city’s Intown TIF area). In such areas, some of the property tax revenue increases generated by new development are captured to be reinvested in that area, say for stadium road improvements, instead of simply going to the city’s general funds. While TIFs can be controversial (they seem to support new development for “free” but really they are diverting tax money from one area to another), the potential for extensive new development does offer another source of public revenues that does not require the imposition of new taxes.
  • Finally, as Noah Pransky has noted, the “public private partnership” touted by the City would no doubt give the Rays the ability share in the development process, and proceeds, for the area. Per Pransky, such an opportunity should greatly sweeten the pot for the Rays, who could see excellent returns from owning and developing land. They would not be the first team owners to make their money from real estate – one could argue, for example, that the Tampa Bay Lightning are a sort of “loss leader” for Jeff Vinik’s real estate development.

The two toughest things about building a new stadium are finding (centrally located, available, sufficient) land, and piecing together the half a billion dollars probably needed to pay for the stadium and its auxiliary development.

St. Petersburg has an answer to the first problem, with its large city-owned site near downtown. They have part of an answer to the second question, too. Pinellas County is already in a much better position than Hillsborough to support a stadium with the existing Tourist Development Tax (Pinellas collects more and already uses some toward the Trop, a revenue stream that could continue, plus the development opportunities mentioned above.)

Does all this make this the ideal site for a stadium?

Certainly not.

There is nothing in the St. Pete proposal that addresses the problems that have led to poor attendance for most of the Rays’ existence. Downtown St. Pete remains far from the area’s main population centers. Although there has been considerable residential and commercial growth the core of downtown as well as the various “districts” along Central Avenue (“Grand Central” and what they are calling the “Edge” district), the essential demographic dynamics of the region remain unchanged. Indeed, as Pinellas is generally considered to be largely “built out”, population growth will likely be much stronger in the region’s other counties for years to come.

St. Petersburg also remains distant from the region’s corporate centers in downtown Tampa and in Westshore, limiting corporate partnerships and companies that use Trop suites for business entertainment.

The proposal emphasizes the wonderful pedestrian and biking environment in downtown St. Pete, but those assets are not very helpful to the 90% of fans who will come from outside that area. Indeed, my favorite line from the proposal is this one:

The proposed ballpark site would likely be contiguous to Light Rail Transit (LRT) should a plan eventually transpire.

Well, I feel better about getting there already.

So, to sum up, St. Pete’s proposal tells us little, except that the City is willing and eager to work with the Rays to redevelop the current Tropicana Field site in ways that could, market permitting, be lucrative for everyone.

Should the Rays decide to build here, they eliminate a long list of issues that have no doubt complicated their site search in Hillsborough.

Available land – check! A potentially substantial public contribution that is unlikely to provoke much political pushback – check! In addition, the opportunity to shape the stadium area environment as developers and designers could be appealing and financially rewarding for the team.

But this plan will not address the structural problems that have limited season ticket sales, corporate sales and attendance.

It’s certainly possible that the Rays could decide that the benefits of St. Pete’s offer outweigh the drawbacks.

As Noah Pransky notes,

For the Rays ownership, does it matter whether your revenue comes from ticket sales or rents from property development? If the answer is “no” then reusing the current Tropicana Field site could be the best way for the team to be playing in a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area.