If they build it, will they stay? New stadium for the Rays?
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04/08/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Faced with the possibility that the Tampa Bay Rays may leave town, many think building a new stadium is key to making them stay. Developer Craig Sher, who is with a group that for the past year has been studying the best way to do this, spoke in downtown St. Petersburg today. The audience included five St. Pete City Council members, and they were not pleased with what he had to say.

Craig Sher’s message, which he delivered on behalf of A Baseball Community, or ABC, Coalition, was loud and clear.

Tropicana Field is ending its economically useful life. Maybe not its physical life, but its economically useful life. It does not have the revenue-generating capabilities to make it competitive. And it would cost between 200 million and 475 million to renovate Tropicana Field, and that’s—the result may be like when you renovate a house: You just don’t get what you want.

He said baseball stadiums need to be more like malls these days, and that the Trop won’t cut it. And despite a contract meant to keep them there until 2027, the Tampa Bay Rays, he said, won’t stay in town unless a new stadium is built. Audience member Linda Osmundson asked Sher what for many would be the first question when someone urges a city to build a half-billion dollar stadium during a recession.

How can you defend asking the public to spend millions of dollars on a baseball field when the city and the county are talking about having to close parks, not fund nonprofits, and eliminate services for lots of our community?

Sher said the money can be raised as the economy recovers.

You’ve got to look at it outside of the microcosm of today’s economy. We’re not asking just draw up the check for half a billion dollars today. That would be insulting; it would be the wrong thing to do. But it would clearly take somewhere between six and ten years to get this stadium done; we gotta start the conversation. And as we’ve seen, there’s lots of sources of possible financing, creative ways—involvement of the Rays, perhaps federal money, perhaps state money, certainly local money—to try maybe a regional approach, maybe bits and pieces of things to get it done.

But where it will come from, Sher said he doesn’t know.

There’s not a lot of great options. We weren’t there to examine really what’s available, but anecdotally, there’s not a lot available. There’s plenty of options, but a lot of them are fully funded. Clearly, the bed tax is a good source, sales taxes, state funding, county funding, TBC funding, city funding, possibly some federal funding—they’re all options. And they’re going to have to be cobbled together to some kind of creative financing package that will get this built.

A lot of other things are up in the air. It was the ABC Coalition’s charge to look for the best way to keep the Rays in the Bay area. This largely centered on stadium location. Their study, Sher said, narrowed it down to three options.

Three areas stood out: the mid-Pinellas area, West Shore, downtown Tampa. They stood out on the measurements of number of people within a 30-minute drive time; number of corporations within that 30-minute drive time; and we looked at growth over the next thirty or forty years, ’cause the stadium’s gonna last thirty or forty years, and it could take ten to build it.

Notably missing is downtown St. Petersburg. Many at the meeting expressed hope for a stadium along the city’s downtown waterfront—something the Rays had pushed for in 2008. Sher had one thing to say about this.

It may be on the waterfront; it’s just not going to be on St. Pete’s waterfront. I think the citizenry was pretty clear that that’s not something they wanted, and it would need a referendum. I’m not saying that it was unwinnable, but I think if you read our report, we’re pretty much saying that the stadium should not be in downtown St. Petersburg.

St. Pete City Council member Leslie Curran said afterward that the stadium needs to be built in the Sunshine City.

Our charge to the ABC group was to go out and discuss and improve our fan base, improve our corporate base, and that, I think, is what needs to be done. I do not think it’s healthy to have a discussion of moving the Rays outside of the city limits of St. Petersburg.

Audience member Mike Horan said that someone dropped the ball in pursuing a stadium downtown.

I personally think baseball’s very important to the Tampa Bay area and St. Pete, and I think we really lost an opportunity by not pursuing the waterfront stadium more seriously. It would have been good for downtown St. Pete, and people need to realize it was the cheapest alternative.

Sher said that St. Pete did not act quickly enough to make this happen.

I think they never collectively, the Rays and the city, never got ahead of the curve. The word got out, and they could never catch up with public opinion, or kind of direct the argument. And I think something like this process is trying to get out ahead of it. I don’t think the former mayor was as forceful as he could have been in either supporting or not supporting that stadium. I think he did a great job of being firmly on the fence.

Sher is executive chair of Sembler Corporation, the company that developed the now-hollow BayWalk Complex in downtown St. Pete. He said a waterfront stadium would have been relatively cheap to build, but that doesn’t mean it was the best option.

If it was iconic enough, it would have worked. But in hindsight—I can’t speak for the Rays—it might have been a mistake, because it was probably in the wrong location. On the plus side, it was very doable. They could have got it done quick, inexpensively; the infrastructure was there, and it would have been almost under construction by now.

He said that regardless of what happens, it needs to happen soon.

Under current circumstances, there’s a tremendous risk of losing the team over time. I’m not going to speculate on where you could lose the team to, but there is a risk of that. And don’t think just because we have a lease, or an operating use agreement for 17 years, that they’ll be here in 17 years.

Citing the economy, audience member Ann Drake disagreed.

As the economy recovers, he talks about well, ten years down the road, we’ve got to start building now. The economy isn’t going to recover for another five years, ten years. And money needs to go to places that are, like our nonprofits that are suffering and going out of business. And so I’m a little skeptical.

Sher was unfazed by questions about money or whether the public would approve applying their money to a new facility via referendum. But he did say that if St. Pete wants to keep the Rays, a dialogue between the city and the team’s management is vital.

We need to prove to the Rays, and prove to Major League Baseball, that it can support baseball. The last thing you want is next year for the Rays, by necessity, to cut their payroll to 40 million dollars or whatever, and be noncompetitive.

The coalition will present its findings to the Hillsborough County Commission next month.

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Comments

The Rays

If all it takes to keep the Rays here is a half-billion dollars, then all we need to say is "bye-bye Rays." The Rays need a new stadium like the Bucs need a new stadium. This guy sounds like he could put up the money to build the stadium himself; but of course, wants us to pitch in anyway. A half-billion dollars could do a lot more good for Florida like improving transportation, help the homeless, or even get rid of FCAT and all testing of the kind that doesn't make students any smarter. My cousin, who is a damn good teacher, doesn't have her teaching job because there wasn't any money left to pay her. She busted her ass to get her degree, but gets tossed to the dogs. This money can be better spent, and better not be spent on a new Rays stadium. If it comes to the polls and ballots, please vote and vote to have this shut down. To the Rays: find another home, then go home to it.

salesman

The only thing wrong with the trop is it is not in Tampa. Im a native of St.Pete and over time i have seen us lose a few things to Tampa. Thats all this boils down to is the people of Tampa are lazy. They don't complain about driving to enjoy Pinellas' beautiful beaches but won't drive to see the RAYS, and the RAYS are closer. Just because the Trop is in St.Pete's Midtown you cowards from across the bay still should come see the Rays play. With all thats going in the U.S., we can use that money on more important things. Oh yeah if the folks from Pinellas falled to support the bucs i bet you ray j wont sellout, but we dont need Tampa for our 3 top ten beaches to do well!!! So lets go support our Rays and keep them in St. Pete. One last thing this is what we should live by "TAMPA BAY ONE REGION ONE PEOPLE ONE CAUSE.....TOGETHERNESS