Rays announce deal for St. Petersburg ballpark

September 20th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- The message was splashed across every scoreboard inside Tropicana Field on Tuesday morning. It was reiterated by everyone who stood behind a microphone, from principal owner Stuart Sternberg to St. Petersburg mayor Ken Welch to other club, city and county officials.

The Rays are “here to stay.”

The Rays reached an agreement with the city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County to build a new $1.3 billion ballpark as part of the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site, an 86-acre area also known as the Historic Gas Plant District. The club, city and county made the announcement at Tropicana Field’s “162 Landing” on Tuesday morning, bringing the Rays closer than ever to securing a long-term home in the Tampa Bay area.

There is still a public approval process that all parties hope to complete by early next year, including votes from the St. Petersburg City Council and Pinellas County Commission, but this is the first time the Rays have reached this step in their long-running pursuit of a new ballpark.

As a result, it appears more likely than ever that the club will remain where it's been since its inaugural season in 1998: in downtown St. Petersburg.

“Major League Baseball is here to stay, right here,” Sternberg said. “As we all know, things don’t always progress in a straight line. But we have all been very fortunate this region and especially this city are growing up around us and are better-equipped to support a Major League Baseball team.”

Renderings of the new ballpark and redeveloped Tropicana Field site in St. Petersburg proposed by Rays and Hines. (Credit: Gensler)

The Rays’ proposal features an approximately 30,000-seat ballpark (with the capacity expanded to 35,000 for special events) with three seating levels, a fixed roof, an artificial turf field and a “pavilion” design. The stadium will have three seating levels along with other types of seating, from premium clubs and suites to more flexible areas like decks and social gathering spaces.

The design also includes operable walls and windows that can be opened on pleasant days or closed to ward off Florida’s summer heat, rain and humidity. Unlike at Tropicana Field, fans will be able to look out the windows and, as the team put it, “bring the outside in.”

“Our goal is to build the best ballpark in America. We think it’s going to be the most intimate ballpark, the most comfortable ballpark,” team president Matt Silverman said. “It’s going to be unique because it has a roof. And that roof is an advantage to us.

“That’s one of the things we heard from our fans: Comfort comes first. They love coming into Tropicana Field knowing the game is going to be played, it’s 72 degrees and it’s comfortable. That’s going to be the same in this next ballpark.”

The Rays would pay for more than half of the stadium’s estimated cost, with the city and county covering approximately $600 million and the club responsible for the rest plus any additions or overrun.

Welch, who selected the Rays and their development partner Hines in January as his preferred choice to redevelop the Tropicana Field site, said the city will pay its $300 million through the “bonding of a number of revenue streams, none of which are property taxes, and we’re doing it without any new taxes or any increase in current taxes.” The county is expected to pay its share mostly from a “bed tax” earmarked for economic development or tourism-related investments.

“It is a major commitment for our organization to fund $700 million or more into this ballpark, and that shows the confidence that we have in being here and being a part of the growth and continued renaissance of this area,” Silverman said. “We’re all in this together. We’re not making a bet. We’re making an investment in the future of this city and of this franchise, and we see really, really great years ahead for us.”

According to the agreement, the entire investment in the nearly 8 million square-foot Historic Gas Plant District mixed-use development project is projected to be more than $6.5 billion over the next 20 years. Approximately 15-20 acres, including the ballpark and two event parking garages, would be owned by Pinellas County, leased to St. Petersburg and subleased to the Rays on a 30-year lease agreement, with options to extend it to 40 years.

The club’s current 30-year use agreement at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season, and the Rays are set to remain at their ballpark until then. If the agreement is approved and everything goes according to plan, ballpark construction would be begin in late 2024 and be completed by late ‘27.

Renderings of the new ballpark and redeveloped Tropicana Field site in St. Petersburg proposed by Rays and Hines. (Credit: Gensler)

“We are celebrating our 25th anniversary as a ballclub. A generational fanbase is taking root,” Sternberg said. “And today, we take a huge step forward to ensuring that the Rays fans will be here in Tampa Bay for generations and generations to come.”

The Rays would begin playing there on Opening Day 2028 and accomplish their oft-stated goal of keeping the club in the Tampa Bay area for generations to come.

“This will be a transformative project for the Rays, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County," Sternberg said. "We have proudly served as Tampa Bay’s Major League team for 25 years, and we are thrilled to be in position to do so for decades and generations to come."

The ballpark is just one part of the Rays and Hines’ mixed-use district redevelopment plan, which also calls for housing (including 1,200 units of affordable housing), office and medical space, retail space, hotel rooms, senior living residences, an entertainment venue, conference and meeting space, the Woodson African American Museum of Florida and parking.

The Rays have been searching for a new ballpark in the Tampa Bay area for about 16 years. They announced plans in November 2007 for a stadium on the Al Lang Stadium site, couldn’t reach an agreement with Hillsborough County in 2018 for a proposed ballpark in Ybor City, then had their split-season “Sister City” proposal with Montreal rejected by MLB’s Executive Council in January 2022.

Tampa Bay has been one of baseball’s most successful clubs on the field over the past 15 years, having clinched its ninth postseason appearance since 2008 (and its fifth straight) on Sunday, but ranked no higher than 28th in average attendance from '11-22. The Rays are 26th in the Majors this season, averaging 17,778 fans per game, heading into their final regular-season homestand.

The club will face questions about how building a new ballpark in roughly the same location as Tropicana Field might address its well-documented attendance issues. But the Rays believe that a new ballpark, combined with the redeveloped area around it and their continued success on the field, will drive further interest and higher attendance numbers.

“We think there’s a number of things that are going to allow us to materially increase attendance going forward,” team president Brian Auld said. “The first is that we’re going to have a better ballpark surrounded by a world-class destination, so we expect more people to come to enjoy that incredible ballpark and all the wonderful things we’re going to have around it.”