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Rays president explains courtship of Tampa to jilted St. Petersburg crowd

ST. PETERSBURG — After 20 years together, the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Petersburg are poised for a breakup.

And on Thursday at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, facing a St. Petersburg crowd for the first time since the Rays announced a desire to move to Ybor City, team president and CEO Brian Auld attempted his version of the proverbial, "It’s not you, it’s me" speech.

"I object to St. Pete not being a baseball town," Auld said. "The 15,000, 18,000 people a night that we get is comparable to 75,000 people a night in Manhattan. We are a smaller community and that’s okay."

But there are still some hurt feelings among Rays fans in St. Petersburg. As one Tiger Bay attendee reminded Auld, their taxes helped build Tropicana Field.

"Why shouldn’t we feel betrayed?" he asked.

Auld quickly noted that the team wanted to build a new waterfront ballpark at Al Lang Stadium, but the idea was rejected by the community. He pointed out that the team was one of the best in baseball from 2008 to 2013, and still attendance was near the bottom of major league baseball.

In short: It is you a little bit.

For 40 minutes at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, Auld frequently pivoted from adulations of the Pinellas County community to the team’s honest assessment of the market there.

It was emblematic of the situation the Rays now find themselves in: The team is leaving because that’s what the front office thinks is best for its future, but the exit won’t be overnight. There will still be several seasons of baseball at Tropicana Field. Rays brass needs St. Petersburg fans to continue to show and, they hope, follow the team to Tampa.

"We’re not missing by just a handful of people here," Auld said.

But if St. Petersburg hasn’t succeeded in drawing fans, someone asked, why would Tampa be any different?

"The biggest difference between Tampa and St. Petersburg is that Tampa is closer to geographic center of this region," he said, and twice as many people live and work within a 30-minute drive.

In Tampa, Auld said the Rays hope to fill a 30,000-person ballpark every night. The new location, on the western edge of Ybor City, offers connectivity to a distinctive, cultural neighborhood with a built-in entertainment district and opportunities to build more storefronts, bars, restaurants, homes and office space nearby.

In designing a new ballpark and baseball game experience, the Rays have "challenged our architects to completely throw out the old model," Auld said.

Maybe there won’t be a box office, because most people will have tickets on their phones or "whatever is embedded into our minds." Maybe fewer seats are in rows and more are clustered around tables. Maybe some patrons will have tickets that get them three innings behind home plate, three innings in a suite and three innings at the ballpark play area with their kids.

Here’s something it will definitely have: a roof. Between the heat, rain and lightning, Auld said a roof is just unavoidable.

Whether its fixed or retractable could come down to "how the community wants to use the facility year-round." Meaning, if Tampa wants a ballpark with an open roof for festivals in December or concerts in January, it’s on the table — if it wants to pay extra for it. A retractable roof could mean $100 million more for a ballpark that is already likely to be quite expensive.

The Rays and leaders in Tampa and Hillsborough County so far have not reached an agreement on a financing package, or even how much is needed for a new ballpark. Auld made it clear Thursday that the team cannot pay for a stadium on its own. The debt payments, he said, would hamstring payroll and kill its ability to compete. And besides a government contribution, he said the team also needs the business community to seriously commit to tickets and sponsorships.

One Tiger Bay member asked: Why should taxpayer dollars support a private business?

"There is absolutely a reasonable argument to be made that’s not where this community wants to put its dollars," Auld said. "We’re going to make our case that we think it does have a positive return, that a new ballpark can lead to a higher tax base that can fund a whole bunch of other services in the area. But it’s not an easy case."

And if that case is unsuccessful, another asked, what is Plan B?

Said Auld: "We don’t have a Plan B."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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Rays president explains courtship of Tampa to jilted St. Petersburg crowd