tampabay.com

Rays on the bay?

The $450-million project hinges on the sale of Tropicana Field and public financing.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN and MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writers
Published November 10, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG -- The Tampa Bay Rays have developed a bold plan to build a $450-million downtown stadium that would give fans waterfront views and protection from rain.

The stadium, to be built on the site of Al Lang Field, would seat about 35,000 and could open as early as 2012. Hitters there would have a chance to send the ball into the bay.

Financing is still being worked out, but a primary source would be proceeds of the sale of the Tropicana Field site to a developer who would build a large retail/residential complex there. The Rays also would make a contribution, perhaps as much as $150-million, covering one-third of the cost.

The team also would seek legislative approval for $60-million of state money in future sales tax revenue from food, beer and merchandise sales in the new park.

The plan faces several hurdles. The city charter requires voter approval of any deal involving a long-term lease of city-owned waterfront property such as Al Lang. The plan also may involve the city selling the Al Lang site to Pinellas County to avoid property taxes; a similar deal was constructed to create a tax shelter for Tropicana Field.

That, too, would have to pass voters' muster at a time when government budgets are tight and taxpayers are calling for tax relief.

State and city officials declined to discuss the plan.

Asked about the stadium plan, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said: "If it can get done, I'm open to it." He declined to comment further.

After the St. Petersburg Times broke the story Friday on its Web site, tampabay.com, the Rays called a late-night news conference at which president Matt Silverman confirmed that the team was going forward with the plan.

"We are excited about the possibilities of these projects, and the economic benefits that they would bring to our community," Silverman said. "We would certainly involve the public in any process related to this."

The new stadium would be open to the elements but could be covered with sail-like material on a cabling system when necessary. Fans or other devices would provide cooling, and some seating areas would have air-conditioning.

The stadium would be built on the site of the longtime spring training facility the team is leaving next year. But the new field would be shifted so that balls hit over the rightfield fence would splash into the water, as is the case at the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park.

Site has pros, cons

The design is expected to be traditional, with a retro look common among new baseball stadiums. The smaller capacity, about 10,000 less than Tropicana Field's when the team began play there, also reflects a recent trend in ballpark design.

The Rays have shown an artist's rendering of the stadium to state and city officials, and likely will have a model when they make a public announcement of their plans, probably in the next month.

The Al Lang site would be a tight fit for a major-league stadium, with only a little more than 10 acres available. That's about the same as Fenway Park in Boston and slightly less than AT&T Park in San Francisco.

It would leave little or no room for on-site parking. Fans would have to use downtown garages and makeshift lots in the area, and the team would be deprived of a revenue source. Bayshore Drive would be closed and be integrated into the site, perhaps as the outfield warning track.

The Rays consider the Al Lang site their top choice for a new stadium for several reasons: Not only could it evolve into a picturesque signature home, but it also would allow the team to get a new stadium without having to fight to get out of its lease at Tropicana Field, which runs through 2027.

The lease bars the Rays from moving anywhere without the city's permission, making an in-city move much more feasible than elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area, such as the state Fairgrounds location in eastern Hillsborough County.

The city still owes more than $100-million on nearly 18-year-old Tropicana Field, a debt not scheduled to be paid off until 2025. The county also is contributing money through a hotel tax.

Though Sternberg's group has spent millions upgrading Tropicana Field since taking over in October 2005, he has also maintained that the team eventually will need a new stadium. As recently as May, he indicated he didn't expect it to happen anytime soon. In July, Major League Baseball president Bob DuPuy said a new stadium was not a top league priority.

But, working on their own and in relative secrecy, the Rays have clearly accelerated that timetable.

"First and foremost, as Stuart Sternberg has said repeatedly, we will not demand a new stadium," Silverman said. "Secondly, Stuart has said on numerous occasions that Tropicana Field will not be a viable facility by the end of our lease term."

A new stadium could become more of a destination and boost the team's attendance, which has consistently ranked among the league's worst.

A key to the deal would be the sale of the Tropicana Field and parking lot land. There are grand plans for the mixed-use redevelopment, with talk of an upscale, sophisticated retail and entertainment area that would create numerous jobs combined with affordable workforce housing. The hope is to get a major developer involved.

Officials unaware

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has said the city is unlikely to provide additional funding for a new stadium. His position reflects a decline in sentiment nationally for the public to subsidize sports teams.

"I know the Rays have looked at a lot of options," Baker said. "And I'm sure they're continuing to look at their options."

Al Lang -- formally known as Progress Energy Park -- will be without a tenant starting in 2009 when the Rays move their spring training facilities to Charlotte County. The city is unlikely to seek a replacement team for spring training.

The process to build a stadium at the Al Lang site was made easier in August, when the City Council agreed to table a proposal that would have added development protections there.

St. Petersburg economic development officials said they wanted more flexibility for the site, but publicly, they never explained why.

Rick Mussett, the city's senior economic development official, would not address questions about a possible new stadium on that site this week: "I can't comment about that," he said.

The circle of people who are involved in the Rays talks so far is small.

Gov. Charlie Crist met privately with team officials on Aug. 17 in St. Petersburg, but he has not commented publicly about the nature of that discussion. He was traveling in Chile on Friday and did not return requests seeking comment.

Many local elected leaders -- from county commissioners to City Council members to state legislators -- said they've heard nothing more than rumors regarding a new stadium. If talks are under way, it's not with them.

"I have heard it come up from time to time, in the last year," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who said he heard rumors again on Thursday. "But there's no formal talks, as far as I know."

"I'd be surprised if it is that far along," said Don Shea, the director of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.

"No one has approached me in any way officially about that," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

Fasano, who oversees economic development spending in the Senate, is someone the Rays surely would seek out.

Any state money for a new stadium would go through him. He sees it as an uphill battle.

"I don't see how anything like that would happen in such a tight budget year," Fasano said.

The Florida Marlins have tried and failed to win the extra tax break, despite the support of House Speaker Marco Rubio. The proposal calls for the first $2-million in sales taxes generated by the stadium each year for 30 years to go toward construction and maintenance.

Rays executives are leaning toward hiring one of the state's most powerful lobbyists, Brian Ballard, to increase the team's presence in Tallahassee.

Could the support of Gov. Crist, who calls St. Petersburg home, put the Rays over the top?

"When you have the governor living a few blocks from the stadium that's helpful, but it's a tough road," said Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, who admits he has heard rumors about the Al Lang site.

Scant support

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, said he opposes using taxpayer dollars to help build a new stadium in St. Petersburg.

"Obviously, I can't imagine anybody in this period of time, why anyone would have any serious interest in using taxpayers' money to build a stadium when we're trying to fix a property tax problem and an insurance problem," Jones said. "Right now, the taxpayers are more concerned about making a mortgage and putting groceries on the table than putting money into a sports complex."

Major League Baseball officials are aware of the Rays' interest in a new stadium but are not party to the proposed plan. MLB officials have helped teams lobby for funding, including for several years in South Florida without success, but do not contribute financially.

The Rays, clearly, had hoped to keep news of the stadium quiet until their official announcement next month. They hastily arranged for a 9 p.m. news conference Friday at Tropicana Field at which Silverman spoke for 27 seconds and took no questions.

Staff writers Steve Bousquet and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.

Key points of the proposal