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Two grassroots groups oppose the new Rays stadium in St. Petersburg

Both opposition groups think the city and county are giving away too much.

Since the city of St. Petersburg announced that it had chosen the Rays/Hines partnership to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site, there hasn’t been a ton of new information about the development to discuss.

We know that Pinellas County has agreed to contribute $312 million toward the stadium, using a part of its hotel tax revenues to pay back bonds (which is how they also had paid for Tropicana Field). We know that St. Pete has hired a company to manage the project on their behalf, and (thanks in part to little else to talk about) we know that the city council quashed a movement to require the Rays to rebrand themselves as the “St. Petersburg” Rays.

As redevelopment presumably moves along, critics of the the plan have begun to come to the fore.

While these critics have very different ideas about how the Historic Gas Plant District should be redeveloped, they agree on two central points: the Rays should be paying for their own stadium, and this prime real estate in the heart of St. Petersburg should be used for other purposes.

We interviewed individuals active in both of these groups to better understand their perspectives in opposing the Rays/Hines deal.

The first begins with two former Raymond James executives who have long been critics of the deal. They believe that public funds should not be used to build a stadium, and that the redevelopment of the area should be carried out with a far more market-oriented approach.

One of those executives, Tom Mullins, ran unsuccessfully for St. Pete city council in 2021, championing a platform of fiscal conservatism and fighting off “woke” policies (according to his campaign website). He was later joined by his former colleague Ron Diner. The two have penned an OpEd in the Tampa Bay Times and have also created a website called No Home Run, where they provide their own analysis of the redevelopment costs and benefits, and detail their opposition to the current Rays Stadium redevelopment plan.

No Home Run

In their analysis, the total public subsidy from the city and the county will amount to $2.4 billion, which is considerably more than the direct stadium subsidies. They point out that the land on which the stadium is built will not be sold to the Rays/Hines (R/H) partnership and will remain publicly owned, and therefore not be subject to property taxation, which they calculate as worth over $630 million in foregone taxes to both city and county over a 30 year period. Yes, that’s not only $630 million the Rays won’t have to pay, but also $630 million the public sector will not receive.

No Home Run also believe the sales price of the land surrounding the stadium, which is slated to be purchased by R/H, represents a subsidy of another $545 million.

The price the Rays have agreed to pay — $105 million — is based on an appraisal that assessed the value of the land (minus the 22 acre stadium site) with current zoning and infrastructure. The opposition group believes a more appropriate appraisal would consider the “highest and best” use of the land, which would include zoning changes that allow for more intensive use.

R/H also have used some creative math to support their payment for the surrounding land, where a $50 million pledge toward “community benefits” and another $50 million pledge for infrastructure cost overruns are deducted from the cash balance R/H will owe the city to complete the deal. Currently, St. Pete pays the first $130 million for infrastructure costs and R/H covers any costs beyond that amount.

As you might guess, No Home Run does not believe this should be part of the calculation, nor do they agree with excluding the 22 acre stadium site from the land sale. In an interview, Diner said that their valuation of the land at around $700 million is not based on a formal appraisal, but rather on their analysis of land sales around the area in recent years.

Affordable St. Pete

The second group, Affordable St. Pete (ASP), is described as “coalition of local organizations, unions, businesses, and concerned citizens working to transform housing” in St. Petersburg that also opposes using public funds to build a stadium.

ASP has been active on a range of housing and tenants rights issues in the city. The group opposes the R/H deal both because its participants are opposed to deep subsidies being given to a private business, and because they believe that both the land and the subsidy dollars could better serve the city’s residents by addressing storm water and other infrastructure issues, as well as providing for more affordable housing.

In an interview, Jamie Kidder, who is active in ASP, told us he’s a long time Rays fan and hopes the team stays in the area, but not at such a high cost to taxpayers. His sentiment was a familiar refrain: If the Rays want to build at this site that’s fine, but they should pay for it themselves.

These two unrelated groups converge in their analysis of what is wrong with the deal, but differ considerably in what they see as the ideal alternative.

For the No Home Run group, the ideal way to carry out development is by letting the market drive the process. They would like to see the site divided into smaller parcels and offered to the highest bidders. Purchasers of the parcels would ultimately decide on their use — hotel? High-end housing? Offices and stores? This is, after all, how redevelopment is occurring up and down Central Avenue, with individual investors purchasing property and developing the sorts of projects they believe will be popular and profitable.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays-Press Conference Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

In this scenario we would be unlikely to see the sorts of “community benefits” that R/H have promised. We would probably not see income-restricted affordable housing, or an African-American cultural center. To Diner, that’s not a problem, because the $700 million the city would realize through property sales would pay for plenty of housing and quite a nice cultural center on some other, less valuable site.

Affordable St. Pete, however, wants the site to be used to serve the community more fully, most notably by committing to construction of what they are calling “social housing” — affordable units built and owned by the city, serving low and moderate income residents with the profit motive removed. While their scenario doesn’t generate a large public windfall through the sale of the land, they believe that the city subsidy currently supporting the stadium could be redirected to serve their other, more compelling community priorities.

Nevertheless, these two groups stand united in their belief that the city and county should not be using tax payer funds to pay for a stadium — or at least committing such a large portion of the costs with what they claim is little direct benefit.

While the R/H proposal seems to be moving along, there will be other junctures at which the Mayor and City Council will need to approve contracts, land sales, and subsidy commitments. For example, the details of any lease agreement for the stadium land remain open, and it’s possible that payments to lease the land for the stadium will offset some local tax loss. We should also note that the current agreement caps the city and county contributions, leaving R/H to address any cost overruns.

Both No Home Run and Affordable St. Pete are hoping to galvanize residents against the city’s deal with the Rays and Hines, with the goal of either seeing the deal abandoned or at least renegotiated with better benefits coming back to the city.