Money, fans, politics and the value of a baseball stadium in Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURG — Here, at the end of an epic journey, there is hope and joy.

Also, there is indecisiveness, concern, paranoia, misperception and legitimate fear.

That’s what 20 years of chasing a baseball stadium will do to a town. Sides are chosen, points are exaggerated and, often, common sense becomes collateral damage.

In January 2023, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch seemingly put an end to the great stadium debate when he handpicked a proposal from a Rays/Hines partnership to redevelop the 86 acres where Tropicana Field currently stands. All that remained were the details and approval of the City Council and Pinellas County.

More than 14 months later, little has changed except the spread of nervous tics.

That’s not meant to be flippant. This is a huge undertaking and the stakeholders are justifiably antsy. The future of a baseball team, the coffers of a city and the viability of a neighborhood are all riding on the success or failure of this plan. So, maybe it’s a good time to turn down the volume and focus on the big picture without resorting to bumper-sticker slogans.

So, is this a good deal for the Rays?

I’m sure it is. They stand to generate revenue from the redevelopment of the land, and get a 21st century version of a stadium. If the Historic Gas Plant district turns out anything like Atlanta’s Battery, it will become a destination site that should boost attendance.

The Rays have been hardnosed concerning other stadium proposals in the past, so their enthusiasm about this project suggests they view this as a desirable business decision. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s a giveaway. The team will be spending $700 million and covering all cost overruns.

Is this a good deal for Gas Plant residents?

Skepticism is understandable. While the Gas Plant neighborhood was not razed to make room for Tropicana Field — the decision to tear it down was made in 1979, years before the ballpark was even conceived — residents have not seen a lot of economic benefit from the current configuration.

This rendering shows a promenade that would be part of the Tampa Bay Rays and Hines' redevelopment of St. Petersburg's 86-acre Tropicana Field site.
This rendering shows a promenade that would be part of the Tampa Bay Rays and Hines’ redevelopment of St. Petersburg’s 86-acre Tropicana Field site. [ Tampa Bay Rays / Hines ]

And that’s why this deal holds so much promise. Instead of acres of parking lots, the plan includes restaurants, bars, office space, retail locations, affordable housing, park sites and other amenities. You could argue all of that could be accomplished without the stadium, but that’s an iffy bet.

One of the reasons St. Pete lacks affordable housing is because it’s not terribly profitable for developers. Heck, City Hall has had trouble attracting grocery stores in some neighborhoods. Do you honestly think developers are going to be lined up to provide subsidized housing without the incentive of a stadium-like project?

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Also, St. Pete already has been through two national bid processes in the past six years for this site. If this deal is turned down with a nationally-respected developer such as Hines involved, how many developers will be enthusiastic about trusting St. Pete with a third go-round?

And, because the Rays are entitled to 50% of the redevelopment revenues and can dispute any construction plans through the end of the 2027 season, to suggest the city can proceed without a stadium solution is somewhat disingenuous. In that scenario, shovels wouldn’t hit the dirt until 2028 at the earliest. That means Gas Plant residents will be waiting until another decade before seeing any concrete improvements.

Is this a good deal for the city/county?

Economic studies seem united on the idea that stadiums are a poor investment. From a simple dollars-on-a-spreadsheet perspective, that’s likely true.

But municipalities often spend money on cultural/civic/environmental amenities that do not turn a profit. That’s the job of elected officials. To make the difficult decision on whether it’s in a community’s long-term benefit to invest money in a project.

Beyond the kumbaya vibe of having a ballclub for residents to rally around, there is an obvious benefit to having Major League Baseball’s stamp of approval when it comes to attracting corporate clients to relocate or expand in a market.

While the cost/benefit ratio might be debatable, there is no question that the Rays are popular in Tampa Bay. The team commissioned separate surveys in St. Pete and Pinellas County last month that suggested roughly 80% of voters consider it important for the Rays to remain in the region. And when provided the details of the cost — the county’s portion of funding, for instance, comes from tourism revenues that cannot be spent on schools or law enforcement — voter support was in the 76-78% range.

Seattle, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New York and Washington D.C. all lost MLB teams in the past. Houston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles and St. Louis lost NFL teams. And every one of those cities either sued, threatened congressional action or paid a hefty sum to lure new teams back to town.

That’s a pretty strong indication that there is some value in stadium investment.

Now, does all of this mean the current proposal should be approved by city and county officials?

Heck if I know.

I do not have the economic chops to dive into the weeds and figure out whether the numbers make sense for St. Pete.

But simply campaigning against the plan because it looks like it will be beneficial to the Rays is short-sighted. St. Pete has had enough real estate disasters — Bay Plaza, anyone? — to realize there is a benefit in doing business with the best developers available. And contributing to the cost of a stadium and infrastructure is the carrot that entices a global developer such as Hines to agree to take part in a project that includes less profitable ventures like affordable housing.

It’s also a fantasy to suggest the Rays pay the entire $1.3 billion stadium cost. That rarely happens anywhere, and certainly not in a market that has generated below-average revenues for a team that has been among the most successful in MLB for the past decade or more.

If you want to argue that public funds should never be used for sports stadiums, I will not disagree. That’s a legitimate stand to take.

Just be aware that, five years from now, you may be making that stand while in an empty parking lot.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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