Rays ask: Rethink downtown

An "iconic" stadium. Housing. Retail. Will team's big plans win support?

Published November 29, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -The images portray a downtown transformed, a vibrant, dynamic community with a waterfront ballpark and a massive redevelopment of Tropicana Field.

But first comes the hard part: persuading enough people to make the vision a reality.

At an afternoon news conference at Al Lang Field, the proposed site of their $450-million stadium, the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday laid out an ambitious plan that would constitute the city's largest redevelopment.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg described it as a barbell - with a new stadium at one end and a redeveloped Tropicana Field at the other - to anchor downtown. It would include:

-A 34,000-seat outdoor stadium, repositioned on the historic Al Lang site so home runs hit to rightfield could land in Tampa Bay. It would open in 2012.

- A retractable fabric covering, which the Rays say could keep the field 8 to 10 degrees cooler and prevent games from being rained out.

-Nearly 1-million square feet of new retail space to replace Tropicana Field and the adjacent parking lots. A major outdoor merchandise retailer could anchor the development, the Rays said.

- Some 900 units of new housing at the Trop site, with room to add hundreds more.

It comes, the Rays say, with a financing plan that calls for no new taxes. But the public still would pay a big part of the bill, primarily from the redevelopment of the publicly owned Tropicana Field site, as well as $60-million in state subsidies.

The stadium plan would require city voter approval, and the state tax rebate would have to be approved by the Legislature - two significant obstacles among many the team faces.

"This is not going to be an easy thing," Sternberg said Wednesday, with the St. Petersburg waterfront behind him. "Things that have value in life rarely are easy. They come from hard work and determination."

The announcement follows nearly three weeks of speculation since the St. Petersburg Times' Web site, tampabay.com, first reported the plan.

How the Rays plan to pay for it

The Rays may not call for new taxes, but their plan still requires the public's money. Here's how it would work:

The Rays said the Tropicana Field site could generate between $250-million and $300-million for stadium construction. Part of that would come from the sale of the land to a private developer. Part would come from city and county property tax revenue generated by the new development. Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt would not say how much would come from each source.

Also under the plan, $150-million would be raised by the Rays' annual rent payments to the city. The Rays, who now pay about $1-million a year in rent to the city to use Tropicana Field, would increase their yearly payments to close to $10-million. The city would issue bonds, with the rent as the pledged revenue, to pay off the team's share.

The two revenue streams, Kalt said, are "sufficient to form a financing plan."

But Rays officials also want $60-million in state funding in the form of a sales tax subsidy, just like the one helping pay debt on Tropicana Field. The money, which would be paid out over 30 years, could be bonded to yield about $30-million for construction costs.

If the Legislature rejects the funding, "that would cause us to make changes in our design," Sternberg said. But "it wouldn't be a show-stopper."

If the stadium ends up costing more than the projected $450-million, Kalt said, the team would pick up the difference.

A new stadium would require the approval of city voters because it involves a long-term lease of the city-owned Al Lang site. The team intends to ask for a November 2008 referendum.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker attended Wednesday's event, but declined the team's invitation to speak. He said the city isn't ready to support the project yet.

"I've not committed either way," Baker said. "From what I've seen, it's a pretty neat looking design. ... When we get a final proposal, we'll evaluate it."

Left unmentioned was the outstanding public debt on Tropicana Field. By Opening Day 2012, when the Rays want to move into their new ballpark, the city and county still will be on the hook for $53.8-million.

Gov. Crist wowed by stadium design

The stadium is designed to maximize views of the waterfront and downtown skyline. But its signature feature - the Rays call it "iconic," with the potential to be the city's "postcard view" - would be its saillike roof, a first-of-its-kind structure in baseball.

"This," said Joseph E. Spear, a principal architect with stadium designer HOK Sport, "is very different."

The roof would provide cooling during the afternoons and protection from rain during games. It would have the "suppleness of a sports jacket," Spear said, and could deploy within eight minutes with a cabling system that would hang over the field and anchor to a 320-foot stylized mast in left-center field.

It's not the stadium's only distinctive feature. The stadium would be built without a brick, and it would feature the smallest upper deck in Major League Baseball. A restaurant along the first base line would be suspended over Bayshore Drive. And home runs to rightfield would splash into the bay, which the Rays simulated Wednesday by having their player Carlos Pena hit a couple of balls into the water.

"It is absolutely stunning," Gov. Charlie Crist said of the design.

MLB president Bob DuPuy was equally enthusiastic, calling the idea to link the new stadium with the Trop site redevelopment ingenious: "We think it's visionary and can help ensure the success of baseball in Florida for the next 50 years."

The stadium could accommodate other events, including football, which could lead to a college football bowl game, officials said.

To make the stadium fit on the 10-acre Al Lang site, the Rays say they would need to fill in a small area of the waterfront and shift a section of Bayshore Drive east. The road would be closed to vehicles on game days, allowing fans to have 360-degree circulation around the ballpark.

"This," Sternberg said, "will be a unique, progressive design that will be iconic and resonate throughout the entire state of Florida."

At the other end of downtown

The Rays are working with one of the world's largest private developers to turn Tropicana Field and its adjacent parking lots into a mixed-use development worth up to $700-million.

Hines Interests in Houston has developed a conceptual plan to turn the Trop site into a sprawling retail and residential community, anchored by a major outdoor merchandise chain. Rays officials declined to name the retailer.

The development would include 900 residential units and 1-million square feet of retail space, team officials said. Fourteen acres of public parks would be created around an enhanced Booker Creek.

"It's a blank canvas for a developer," said Rays president Matt Silverman.

If the Rays keep to their timetable, work on the site would begin in 2009, and a first phase would be complete by 2011. The Rays would continue to play at Tropicana Field through the 2011 season, though the construction would limit parking.

Team officials said their plan could finally push the growth of downtown beyond the waterfront while fulfilling the promise of economic development that never materialized at the Tropicana site.

Before work begins, the city would request proposals from developers - a requirement because the land is publicly owned. The city would get to set the ground rules - how many residential units, how much retail - but the developers would set the asking price. Hines would have to compete with other developers to win rights to the site.

"This is a major-league region in a major-league state," Sternberg said. "Together we can transform this into a major-league downtown that will benefit our entire community."