The playoff-bound Tampa Bay Rays put the finishing touches Tuesday on plans for a new 30,000-seat ballpark in St. Petersburg as part of a $6.5 billion development project that includes affordable housing, retail, bars and restaurants and a Black history museum.
The site is on the same 86-acre (34-hectare) tract of downtown land where Tropicana Field now sits. That domed, oddly-tilted ballpark would be demolished once the new one is built, in time for opening day 2028, Rays co-president Brian Auld said in an interview.
The plan, which still has some political hurdles to clear on funding and government approvals, would keep the Rays in St. Petersburg for the foreseeable future despite constant talk of the team moving across the bay to Tampa and possibly to Nashville, Tennessee. A plan to plan to split home games with Montreal was rejected by Major League Baseball.
“We're going to be here for a very long time,” Auld said. “We're all really thrilled that for the first time since we started this we have a clear path to make sure the Rays stay in Tampa Bay for generations to come.”
The announcement for the new ballpark and surrounding project came Tuesday at an event inside Tropicana Field.
“I am so excited that the Rays are here to stay. Finally!” said Janet Long, chair of the Pinellas County Commission, who noted this will be the largest economic development project in county history. “This project is a home run and means so much more to us than sports.”
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has said expansion to 32 teams could be considered after ballpark deals are in place for the Rays and Oakland Athletics, who have proposed moving to a planned stadium in Las Vegas.
The Rays have played in St. Petersburg since their inaugural 1998 season. The Trop, as the Rays' current home is called, is criticized for being dank, outdated and having roof support beams that are sometimes hit by fly balls. It cost $138 million when it was built in 1990 to draw a major league team to the region.
The new ballpark will cost about $1.3 billion, officials said, with roughly half of that coming from the Rays and half from city and county governments, co-president Matt Silverman said. The structure will have a fixed roof in rainy and hot Florida, but it will be low-profile, with doors and windows on the sides that can open to the fresh air during cooler months.
“It will have the smallest capacity in Major League Baseball. Having that roof is necessary, but you want to create intimacy,” Silverman said.
Pinellas County and the city of St. Petersburg will each provide about $300 million toward the ballpark. County officials say their share of the money will come from a bed tax largely funded by visitors that can be spent only on tourist-related and economic development expenses. St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said bonds will be used to fund the city's portion, with no new or increased property taxes.
“We looked at that $300 million as an investment that will pay dividends for the city of St. Petersburg,” Welch said. “I don't believe in roadblocks. We are starting a path of progress for our city for years to come.”
The City Council and County Commission both plan meetings in October to begin making decisions on funding and other issues, especially related to the larger project such as affordable housing, minority contractor participation and money for educational and day care programs. Those meetings will continue into next year.
The Rays, second in the AL East at 92-59, clinched their fifth straight playoff berth on Sunday, but their average home attendance of 17,778 is 27th among the 30 teams.
The overall project goes beyond baseball. It has been pushed by Welch, St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor, as a way to make amends for the destruction of the Historic Gas Plant neighborhood whose mostly Black residents were forced to move in part because of the Rays’ ballpark and also the construction of an interstate highway. Welch's grandfather ran a woodyard in the community and the future mayor spent many of his younger days there.
“Today we take a significant step toward fulfilling the promises made 40 years ago,” Welch said. “I’ve never doubted that this day would come.”
Hines global development company, which is managing the project, says it will include more than 6,000 new apartments and condominiums, office space, retail space, a hotel, a Black history museum and more. The goal is to break ground in the second half of 2024.
“It's more than just a baseball team that calls it home,” Silverman said. “The stadium question has hung over this franchise for decades. We're creating a new neighborhood.”
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