St. Pete mayor picks Rays' redevelopment site bid

January 30th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays have taken a step toward securing a long-term home in the Tampa Bay area.

To conclude his first “State of the City” address, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch announced on Monday that he selected the Rays and their development partner Hines as his preferred choice to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site, also known as the Historic Gas Plant District.

This does not mark an end to the Rays’ long-running stadium saga, but it is potentially a notable move in that direction after more than 15 years of attempts to build a new ballpark in the area.

“Here we are, at the end of the beginning,” Rays president Brian Auld said during a press conference Monday afternoon on the club level at Tropicana Field. “We have made it to the starting line, and we have a long race ahead of us, but we have a team to run that race well.”

The city received four proposals in December to redevelop the Tropicana Field site, with the Rays among the groups proposing a new downtown ballpark as part of a mixed-use district. The club partnered with Hines, a global real estate investment, development and property manager, on a seven million square foot redevelopment plan. Welch chose the Rays/Hines bid over submissions from Sugar Hill Community Partners, Restoration Associates and 50 Plus 1 Sports.

“I am fully confident that this decision is the best path forward for our city,” Welch said on the steps of City Hall. “I am confident that they are the best partner for this generational endeavor, and now the next phase of our work to bring this dream to reality begins.”

What comes next?

The two sides will enter negotiations to complete a term sheet by May, according to the city’s anticipated project timeline, and secure a financing plan. Welch suggested to reporters that he would like to discuss a new use agreement, covering how long the Rays would play at a new ballpark, before that takes place. Auld said they were ready to work on both agreements, whichever order they come in.

Finally, a development agreement is tentatively scheduled to be presented to the St. Petersburg City Council for approval in September or October. The Rays’ current use agreement at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season, and the team needs a new ballpark by Opening Day 2028.

The Rays will keep in touch with the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County regarding a potential stadium on the other side of Tampa Bay, Auld said, but they are “fully engaged with St. Petersburg” and intend to meet the city’s expectations on this project.

“We are at the very beginning here, and there’s a lot that still needs to go right for us to get a shovel in the ground,” Auld said. “Up until that shovel is in the ground, it’s important that we continue to have dialogue about preserving the Rays in Tampa Bay for generations to come and all the different ways that could happen.

“But I don’t want to underestimate what a big step was taken forward today for St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.”

The Hines/Rays proposal features an approximately 30,000-seat park with a fixed roof, operable walls and a pavilion design. The ballpark would be open year-round for baseball, civic events, concerts and festivals, and there would be a nearby “Gameday Street” with food and beverage offerings, an event plaza and a family-friendly entertainment venue.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime project,” said Dawn Gunter, a principal and managing director at Gensler, the project’s master plan architect. “It’s historical. It’s healing. It’s transformational to people’s everyday lives that are going to live here, work here and play here.”

The Rays would stand to benefit from redeveloping the area, but one question is how building a new ballpark in essentially the same place would solve the club’s well-documented attendance issues at Tropicana Field. Despite making the postseason four years in a row, they have had the Majors’ third-lowest home attendance each of the last two seasons.

Auld cited the economic and population growth throughout the Tampa Bay area over the past four or five years, saying that information has been “really encouraging for us and Major League Baseball,” and noted that a “world-class venue” in the middle of a redeveloped district would give them “the best possible chance” to increase attendance.

The redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant District is about more than just baseball, however. Welch referred to the redevelopment of the historically Black neighborhood as a “generational project” that will be rooted in intentional equity, shared opportunities and “meaningful inclusion of the African-American community.” The plan also calls for multi-family housing units, hotels, senior living places and office, retail and entertainment space, among other civic uses.

“What we wanted to do was to make the decision easy for [Welch],” Auld said. “We wanted to give him a solution that could help solve the future of baseball [in Tampa Bay] while also hitting his outspoken desire for an inclusive and equitable process. I think we did just that, and we’re proud to be sitting here today celebrating it.”