TAMPA — At last, Hillsborough County leaders have decided where they want to put a Tampa ballpark, entering them officially in the sweepstakes to be the next home of the Tampa Bay Rays.
The county will offer the Rays a location in the Channel District-Ybor City area bordered by 15th Street and Channelside Drive to the east and west and Fourth Avenue and Adamo Drive to the north and south. The Tampa Bay Times reported in August that county officials were narrowing in on this site.
More importantly, County Commissioner Ken Hagan said Tuesday that the community has reached an agreement with land owners to gain site control of about 14 acres there.
"We initially presented sites to (the Rays) and after discussing the benefits and challenges of each it became clear that the Ybor site became both the team's and our preferred site," Hagan told the Times on Tuesday.
The Rays must now weigh Hillsborough's entry against other options in Pinellas County. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to build a new ballpark on a redeveloped Tropicana Field site, though other options may be in play.
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In a statement, the Rays were noticeably noncommittal, though Major League Baseball teams are reticent to make news during the World Series. There's also a hotly contested St. Petersburg mayoral race, and a bold announcement now could sway it.
"This is another important step in the site selection process, and we are grateful for the time and attention that went into making it a possibility," Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld said in the statement. "We look forward to getting to work evaluating this option, along with those in Pinellas County including the Tropicana Field site, as a potential future home for Rays Baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come."
Getting to this point took nearly two years despite more than a decade of overtures from Hillsborough and Tampa leaders on how badly they wanted the Rays to move across the bay. And there are still many difficult and contentious decisions ahead, not the least of which is how to pay for a stadium and how the cost will be split between taxpayers and the team.
The agreement gives the county nine months to negotiate with the Rays, with the option for a six-month extension.
Though surprised by Hagan's announcement, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn nevertheless said he thinks the location "makes sense in terms of connecting the dots between downtown and Ybor City."
But, he added: "I look forward to hearing how the county plans to pay for this."
For months, local officials have focused on the area between downtown Tampa and Ybor City because it checks several boxes for the Rays: local authenticity (it's near the home of Al Lopez, Tampa's first professional baseball Hall of Famer, and the historic Ybor neighborhood); connection to transportation (the TECO street car, the Selmon Expressway and Interstate 275 ); and it is ripe for development (near the planned Water Street Tampa project and new construction in Ybor).
You would be excused, though, for thinking a ballpark is hard to envision on that site today.
Warehouses and a strip club currently occupy that space. It is flanked to the west by an aging low-income housing complex called Tampa Park Apartments and the Selmon Expressway stands between the proposed site and views of the water. The nearby Ybor Channel is dotted with ship repair businesses. Developments in downtown and Ybor have not yet stretched to that area and one of its closest neighbors is an Ikea.
Earlier this year, Rays owners Stuart Sternberg acknowledged that several of the team's favorite locations in Hillsborough County came off the market while the Rays were locked into their lease at Tropicana Field.
But once the search started, the Channel District-Ybor site emerged as the top contender.
"The Rays have been in lockstep with us every step of the way," said Hagan, though this summer he expressed frustration at times with the Rays' involvement in Hillsborough's efforts.
Ideally, Hagan said the stadium will spark new construction and businesses. And the county could build a marina in the Ybor Channel for water travel to the park. The county commission earlier this year set aside $22 million in BP oil spill settlement money for a prospective marina, though, a ballpark was never discussed when that decision was made.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred recently toured the site as well and gave his approval, Hagan said.
"The possibilities are endless at that location," he said.
Gaining site control took months because of all the landowners there. But BluePearl Veterinary Services CEO Darryl Shaw, who with his partners has spent more than $63 million acquiring property in Ybor City over the last five years, was able to get them on board. A phone call to Shaw was not returned Tuesday night.
Tampa Electric Co. also owns property there and is not part of this agreement, but the company is cooperating with the county, Hagan said.
Shaw has entered into an option agreement with a nonprofit led by Tampa lawyer Ronald Christaldi and businessman Charles Sykes. The organization will control the site and can transfer it to the county, Rays or another entity, should the team agree to move to Tampa.
Putting the land in ownership of a nonprofit will spare taxpayer expense while the community makes a final decision, Hagan said. But it also shields the agreement from public records laws.
In a 2016 pact, the city of St. Petersburg allowed the Rays three years to look around the Tampa Bay area for a new home. That deal expires in January 2019.
Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby said late Tuesday he had yet to speak directly with the mayor, but the city remains confident in its pitch.
"We know Hillsborough still has a long way to go. Mayor Kriseman remains confident in St. Petersburg. Even if the Rays do move, with our ability to redevelop the Trop site, it's a win for St. Pete, anyway," Kirby wrote in a text.
Times staff writers Chris O'Donnell and Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.