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Thursday, Jun 22, 2017
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Iorio: The history — and rivalry — behind the Rays’ location

Opening Day awaits on Monday, and Tropicana Field will be filled to capacity as we cheer on our Tampa Bay Rays to another winning season. But as sure as Joe Maddon argues an umpire’s questionable call, attendance will drop off and the inevitable question will be raised: Where will a new stadium be built for our Rays?

As I cross the Gandy Bridge to attend many baseball games, I wonder: Why was the baseball stadium built in that particular location?

So I set out to find the answer. I went to the man who was once in the thick of all of it — former Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart.

“It was a very natural decision” recalls Stewart, who was a bank executive when the Florida Legislature created the Pinellas Sports Authority (PSA) in 1977. Its sole purpose was to bring Major League Baseball to Pinellas County.

Plenty of consultants were hired along the way, and the first report targeted three possible sites: Gandy Boulevard east of 4th Street, the Carillon Parkway area, and the Sod Farm –an area fronting Interstate 275 which is a landfill. But each site had issues, and the search continued.

The road to the selection of the site is an interesting one. The original site contained only 66 acres, which wasn’t quite large enough for a ballpark. Another consultant was hired to analyze the site and suggested it would have to be enlarged.

What really spurred St. Petersburg to action was the possibility that Major League Baseball could end up in Tampa.

In October 1982, the Tampa Sports Authority announced plans for a possible ballpark next to the original Tampa Stadium. Within days, the St. Petersburg City Council granted the PSA the ability to lease for $1 a year the 66-acre Gas Plant Redevelopment Area for a baseball stadium. Later, the city acquired 20 additional acres to add to the site.

On Nov. 22, 1986, a groundbreaking ceremony was held to build what is now called Tropicana Field. The construction moved forward even though the city had not yet been awarded a Major League Baseball franchise.

Looking back, Stewart says the ultimate site selection really had more to do with urban redevelopment than what was the best location for baseball fans.

And was it worth it to St. Petersburg?

“Absolutely,” says Stewart. When one compares St. Petersburg in 1985 to the St. Petersburg of today, Stewart sees Major League Baseball and the stadium as the catalyst for the positive growth and development throughout the city. The PSA had a job to do and it did it — baseball came to Pinellas County.

The debate on a site for a new stadium to replace Tropicana Field will continue. Just like over 30 years ago, I suspect more than a few consultants will be hired in the process. Competition among communities motivated by rivalries still exists today. Urban redevelopment will continue to be a factor.

In the meantime, I’ll go watch David Price pitch and enjoy this great team called the Tampa Bay Rays.

A new chapter begins

This week I begin a new chapter as the president/CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. This 110-year old organization provides children facing adversity with strong and enduring and professionally supported one-to-one mentoring that changes their lives for the better, forever. I have always believed that we can make the world better one life at a time through individual, positive acts. Working on the national level in such a meaningful way is exciting, and I am looking forward to serving.

Although my work entails a great deal of travel, as the headquarters is in Dallas, Tampa is, and always will be, home. It has been a pleasure writing about our local history, and I thank those of you who have taken the time to write or call and share your own memories.

We live in a special place and share a collective journey that binds us as community. Although my new role means my column comes to an end, our journey continues.

Pam Iorio is a former mayor of Tampa. Readers can contact her at Pam@pamiorio.com.

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