tampabay.com

Land under the Trop is a developer's dream

The 70 acres and interstate access make it a rare gem.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 14, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - While the Tampa Bay Rays dream of baseball on the waterfront, developers are salivating over the land the team wants to leave behind.

The 70-plus-acre Tropicana Field site represents potentially the largest urban redevelopment project in Pinellas County history.

Though the prospect of a new baseball stadium likely will dominate the talk at water coolers, what becomes of the Rays' current home is in most ways just as important.

The team wants to help build a major mixed-use development there. Developers and elected officials already are imagining the possibilities.

Transforming the Tropicana site is "the kind of thing you dream about," said Craig Sher, the chief executive of the Sembler Co., which developed BayWalk in St. Petersburg and Centro Ybor in Tampa.

"There's a real potential to build a really neat mixed-use project, residential and office," Sher said. "There's just not a lot of land left in St. Pete. Any time you get a critical mass of land, you can get something spectacular. Hopefully, we'd be on somebody's list of people to call."

A unique site

Finding more than 70 available acres in Pinellas County is hard enough. Add in an easy connection to the interstate and an urban setting and the task is all but impossible.

Tropicana Field, a nearly 18-year-old baseball stadium with 7,000 parking spaces, may be the last, best redevelopment opportunity in the county, land use experts say.

"It's big enough that you could put a very beautiful mixed-use on that palette," said Ron Weaver, a Tampa development lawyer with ties to the national planning group Urban Land Institute.

Not only is the visibility superb, but the site is within easy driving distance of much of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties. Retailers would love that potential drawing power, Weaver said.

"Stores get obsolescent so fast that you might be able to take 10, 20, 50 or 60 retailers who want to locate there within 25 minutes of 2-million people," Weaver said.

It would be equally attractive to corporate offices, which would love their logos displayed alongside the three arteries of Interstate 275.

The Rays have told elected officials they would like to include affordable housing in the project, which could help sway voters and local leaders on the plan. The team also said it wants to keep 5,000 parking spaces - presumably in garages - for fans heading to the new downtown ballpark.

Weaver compared the site to a mixed-use redevelopment project in Atlanta called Atlantic Station. Across the interstate from downtown Atlanta, the former Atlantic Steel compound is becoming a retail, office and residential hub.

"It has some terrific possibilities," Sher said. "To have the chance to do something like that in your hometown, that's so exciting."

Exhilaration for the site, however, is not universal. Alan Bomstein, who owns a Clearwater commercial construction firm, described the development potential as marginal.

"Downtown would need to expand further out Central Avenue before the Tropicana site became a great development opportunity," Bomstein said. "You have a mix of some industrial around there and some depressed residential areas around there. I'm not sure retail is really an answer, but I don't do retail work."

It's difficult to say how much money the land could fetch.

According to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office, the current market value is around $121-million. But that's for a baseball stadium and parking lot, and the appraiser's estimates are typically low.

Would a high asking price - say $200-million - scare off developers in the current climate? Several real estate experts think not.

"Good sites are always in demand," said Alan Feldshue, a senior associate with the commercial real estate firm Colliers Arnold. "There would be funds out there to do the development."

To make any of it happen, a for-sale sign would have to go up outside Tropicana Field. And Pinellas County's leaders would have to approve that.

Selling not easy

The county, the city and the team all have a stake in Tropicana Field. Each is entitled to some of the proceeds in the event of any sale.

The county now owns the land. The city sold Tropicana Field to the county for $10 to avoid a seven-figure property tax bill. The county, unlike the city, does not have to pay property taxes on the site.

The county also pledged 1 cent of its tourist development tax to help pay off the costs for Tropicana Field renovations.

County officials are just now being brought into the negotiations. Commissioner Ken Welch, who is to meet with Rays executives today, said he's not sure how the county could see a return on its investment.

Would the money from the sale to developers pay off the remaining bond debt?

Or would the team want to shift the county tourist tax payments - which could generate nearly $90-million over the next 20 years - to help pay off a new stadium?

"My main concern is the county's investment in the Trop," said Welch, who likes the notion of putting affordable housing on the site. "How much of that investment would we recoup? What are they planning to put in place of the Trop?"

County Commissioner Bob Stewart, who voted to build the domed stadium as a member of the St. Petersburg City Council 20 years ago, said he's somewhat surprised the Rays did not contact the county sooner.

"The county is a major player and should be in the starting lineup on these negotiations," said Stewart, who said initially he supports the idea of a new stadium. "The fact that we're still on the bench is a little surprising."

The city, meanwhile, secured the land and paid for the construction of Tropicana Field. St. Petersburg has more than $100-million in outstanding bond payments, is financing some of the maintenance of the facility and holds a lease with the Rays that runs through 2027.

City officials are not discussing their end of the deal. The city could be asked to continue paying off its debt, or it could seek out the money from the Tropicana Field sale.

The Rays, too, would profit off any sale. The team's lease is ironclad: The Rays have to play at Tropicana Field until 2027. If that lease is broken - even by mutual agreement - the team would have a claim to the land for the next 20 years.

The Rays would use their portion of the Tropicana site funds toward building the proposed $450-million stadium at Al Lang Field. They could also ask for the county and the city's portion as well.

In return, the governments get a 70-acre development on the tax roll.

"The potential for redevelopment is intriguing," Stewart said. "There is such little land, particularly of that size, that is available or could be available.

"Everybody wins if the land gets sold and put on the tax roll and becomes a contributing resource," Stewart said.

Times staff writer James Thorner contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

FAST FACTS:

City, county still owe plenty

The city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County are paying off three major bonds for renovations to Tropicana Field. Including interest, local governments currently owe $123.3-million. By 2012, when the Rays propose opening a new stadium, the city and county would still owe $82.8-million.

By Oct. 1, 2016, the city would still owe $18.6-million. By then, the county's contribution would be paid off.

Bond 1

Source of revenue: City's sales tax returns, county's tourist development tax

Loan total: $114.3-million

Principal remaining: $54.8-million

Interest payments remaining: $13.1-million

Amount remaining (including interest) in 2012: $41.4-million

Last payment: Oct. 1, 2015

Bond 2

Source of revenue: Professional sports facility sales tax

Loan total: $27.2-million

Principal remaining: $23.4-million

Interest payments remaining: $10.8-million

Amount remaining (including interest) in 2012: $28-million

Last payment: Oct. 1, 2025

Bond 3

Source of revenue: Non ad-valorem city revenues

Loan total: $17.84-million

Principal remaining: $16.1-million

Interest payments remaining: $5-million

Amount remaining (including interest) in 2012: $13.4-million

Last payment: July 1, 2016e_SClBTropicana Field property specs

- More than 70 acres

- Estimated value of $121-million

- Access from I-275, I-175

- Available for office, residential, retail