Rays’ owner Stuart Sternberg and team President Brian Auld addressed reporters on site at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, and shortly thereafter Auld and fellow team President Matt Silverman addressed local Tampa Bay media via conference call.
The upshot: the Ybor deal was always going to be complex; putting together multiple public and private financing sources while addressing issues of site control and infrastructure proved to be more than could be accomplished in three years.
The Rays declined to seek an extension on their agreement with St. Petersburg that allowed them to explore Hillsborough sites because too many loose ends remained.
Judging by the comments of these Rays corporate leaders, and reading between the lines, it seems like several factors undid this project.
First, although the Rays had three years to finalize this deal, they did not in fact announce a site until February 2018. Much of the work to hammer out a deal, from site planning to financing and leveraging corporate support, depends on an actual site. Silverman acknowledged that they share blame for the slow pace of the site selection process (in DRB’s earlier reporting we have noted assertions that some sites favored by the Rays turned out to be unavailable).
Secondly, as noted in Rob Manfred’s letter, much of the Hillsborough County “commitment” to stadium support had many question marks. The County was assuming revenue could be generated through Opportunity Zone investment, but as our own Daniel Russell noted, OZ’s are new and regulations still not clear. Hillsborough County had not identified actual investors and probably could not do so for quite some time. In Silverman’s words, the County promises were not concrete enough to “take to the bank”.
The Rays representatives were extremely cagey when it came to questions about what the team itself was willing to invest in the stadium. “Too many variables,” according to Sternberg, to commit to a number.
Over the past year there have been complaints from some Hillsborough County officials that they had not heard from the Rays at all. Silverman pushed back against this charge, saying they had been consistently in touch with Hillsborough County, although they had preferred to keep these conversations out of the public eye. The dust-up over communications seems to speak to an inherent problem in negotiating a complicated deal with a municipal government that lacks a strong mayor. Whereas “talking to St. Petersburg” essentially means calling Rick Kriseman, “talking to Hillsborough County” could mean any number of things, from speaking with the appointed county manager to having conversations with individual county commissioners.
Where does this leave the Rays, and Rays fans, now?
Silverman and Auld continued to insist their hope is to remain in Tampa Bay for generations to come, that they have “great partners” on both sides of the bay. Auld said he’s learned working with Sternberg, “never say never.”
Silverman reminded us that they “took a swing” at a new stadium with the waterfront proposal in 2008 and missed, and they’ve taken another unsuccessful swing this time around.
That leaves the Rays in the batters box at 0-2; what’s the stadium development equivalent of “waiting for your pitch” or “choking up and going the other way,” as we’d advise a hitter down in the count? Hopefully the Rays front office has a good two strike approach, or Tampa Bay will be joining the list of communities that had and lost a major league baseball team.