Rays unveil plans for waterfront ballpark

11/28/07 Mitch E. Perry
WMNF Drive-Time News Wednesday | Listen to this entire show:

After months of backroom maneuvering, the Tampa Bay Rays and the city of St. Petersburg announced the official plans for a new waterfront 34,000-seat baseball park at the site of Al Lang Field.

News about the stadium broke on the St. Petersburg Times website 19 days ago – but other than a 27-second statement later that night, the Rays have not said a word about the park to the public.

Today,s nearly hour-long news conference was held at Al Lang Field; it featured Rays slugger Carlos Pena, who hit a homerun into the bay.

The Rays plan is about redeveloping two areas, the current Progress Energy Park at Al Lang Field, and Tropicana Field, the current home of the Rays on 16th Street. Team officials emphasized that the plans are not finished products.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg acknowledges that there will be significant challenges to building the dream facility.

Gov. Charlie Crist, a native of St. Petersburg who still resides in the area when he’s not in the state capitol, was ebullient in extolling the virtues of the proposed park, while at the same time virtually dismissing the $60 million that the Rays hope the Legislature will provide in sales tax rebates.

The plan calls for the Rays to provide $150 million in funding for the new park – but another huge gamble is how much money the Rays will get from re-developing the site of their current home, Tropicana Field and its adjoining parking lot.

The Rays are working with Hines Interests in Houston to turn the 85-acre site into a sprawling retail and residential community. The development would include 900 residential units and 1-million square feet of retail space, team officials said. Fourteen new acres of public parks would be created and centered around an enhanced Booker Creek.

Michael Harrison is with Hines; he says the plans include lots of green space. He also says the new park would be LEDE certified, making it an environmentally correct or green stadium.

A major question since the plans were first leaked is parking. There is no central parking facility in the area, and none is planned. But Michael Kalt, the Rays vice president of development, says it won’t be a problem.

Another major concern is the fact unlike Tropicana Field, the ballfield will be open air, covered only by a 320 foot tall mast. Whether that will provide sufficient cooling in the intense humidity of Florida summers is debatable.

Kalt says the team has hired climatologists to determine how to make the stadium cooler than some other parks that play in warm climates, like Texas and Atlanta. They say they can keep it on par with other noted hothouses in the summer, like St. Louis and Kansas City.

The Rays have only been in existence since 1998; in that time, they’ve finished last in the American League Eastern Division in all but one season. Last year, the Rays had the lowest payroll in the Major Leagues, at only $24-million.

Sternberg was asked why should the city or state provide anything for his team, when he has yet to put in that much for the team? Sternberg says he has spent money on things other than the Major League Franchise, like investing in academies in different Latin American countries. Plus, he says the payroll will increase.

Rays officials said several times that they look forward to working with the community in an open way to put together their plans. The Rays and St. Petersburg officials have been criticized for not disclosing any information about the proposal, especially before City Council elections that were held earlier this month.

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