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Where would the Rays go? If talks OK’d, we might know in 2016

The New Year is expected to usher in a new phase of one of the region’s most divisive questions: Should the Tampa Bay Rays get a new stadium?

After six years of stalemates and fraught negotiations, the St. Petersburg City Council that will be seated in January is expected finally to grant the Rays and team President Brian Auld permission to explore potential new ballpark sites across Tampa Bay.

That likely will kick-start a flurry of activity, with political leaders in Pinellas County eager to keep the team while their counterparts across the bay look to add Major League Baseball to Hillsborough County’s roster of pro sports attractions.

“Once agreement is reached, on that day I will pick up the phone and call Brian Auld and work to schedule a meeting with our committee as soon as practical,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, a cheerleader for moving the team to Tampa.

But if its owners decide the 85-acre Tropicana Field site is not right for baseball, what is?

Major League Baseball in recent years has favored urban settings for new ballparks, believing downtowns put stadiums conveniently close to corporate ticket buyers and residents. It also puts ballparks within walking distance for many office workers to catch a game before heading home.

Another key factor will be how many people live within a 30-minute drive, considered the longest time most fans are willing to spend regularly on travel.

Proximity to the business community also is considered critical. Corporate ticket sales account for two-thirds of ticket sales for most teams though only one-third for the Rays.

The 2010 ABC Coalition report commissioned by former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker concluded that only the Gateway area, West Shore and downtown Tampa had sufficient population density and concentration of businesses to support professional baseball.

The report was compiled during the recession, when development largely had stalled. Since then, both St. Petersburg and Tampa have seen prolific residential growth as part of the nation’s new love affair with urban living.

“While the population has definitely changed in the past five years, the corporate environment has not,” said Sean Lux, a University of South Florida assistant professor of entrepreneurship who served on an ABC Coalition subcommittee. “There is not the corporate environment in downtown St. Petersburg that would be spending a lot of money on suites.”

Several potential sites already seem no longer viable.

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik made no room for a ballpark in his $2 billion redevelopment of a 40-acre area around Amalie Arena.

Likewise, a ballpark was absent from recently unveiled Port of Tampa plans for waterfront development north of The Florida Aquarium.

The Florida State Fairgrounds, studied by the ABC Coalition, may also be considered along with newcomer the Museum of Science and Industry site on Fowler Avenue, Hagan said. The museum may be relocating to downtown Tampa as part of Vinik’s development.

“Everything will be on the table once we have the opportunity to sit down with the team,” Hagan said.

While “location, location, location” may be the mantra for team owners, they also will have to consider which county can best afford a new stadium, which may run to $600 million or more.

That may give an edge to Pinellas, one of only a handful of counties in Florida where annual sales from stays in hotel-room and lodgings exceed $600 million — the state threshold to be classified as a high-tourism impact community.

That allows the county to levy a 6 percent tax on hotel and lodgings, worth about $7 million per year. Hillsborough’s tax is 5 percent. Pinellas also has another $7 million of bed tax freed up following the repayment of construction bonds for Tropicana Field. Based on previous financial deals, that tax — enough to issue bonds of at least $200 million — could be used for a new stadium.

Hagan already has a committee in place to talk with the Rays once the team has permission. It includes Tampa Sports Authority President Eric Hart, Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes and Fifth Third Bank Tampa Bay President Brian Lamb.

Pinellas will be equally forward in pitching its best stadium sites, said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. Most of the seven-member commission has established relationships with the Rays executive team.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman will be pitching a plan to build a new ballpark, and Welch expects some Pinellas landowners who previously have stayed out of the stadium debate will step forward once the team has permission to look outside St. Petersburg.

“I’m anxious to see Hills­borough put what they have on the table and show the Rays the sites and the city and county funding,” Welch said. “I’m more than optimistic about our ability to put up something that is superior in all phases.”

Here’s an updated review of potential stadium sites already proposed.

Tampa Park Apartments

For many, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, this 21-acre salmon-colored low-income housing development nestled between Ybor City and downtown Tampa best fits Major League Baseball’s urban stadium template.

It is within walking distance of Ybor City, downtown and the Channel District, where Vinik is planning $2 billion in redevelopment. It also is close to Interstates 275 and 4, the I-4/Selmon Expressway Connector, the bus system’s Marion Transit Center and any future light-rail or high-speed rail line.

The housing complex lies within the Central Park community redevelopment area, which would give the city access to a portion of property tax revenue to make infrastructure improvements as it is doing for the Vinik development.

In addition, the nonprofit organization that owns the complex has indicated a willingness to sell.

“I think they would be open to discussion,” Buckhorn said. “The fact it is under sole ownership makes it very attractive; you don’t have to acquire a lot of additional parcels and they’ve expressed a willingness to talk at the appropriate time.”

Florida Sentinel Bulletin Publisher S. Kay Andrews, one of the leaders of the nonprofit group, did not return a call seeking comment.

Challenges raised by the site include finding housing for the people who live there and dealing with the extra traffic a ballpark would bring, particularly on evenings when the Tampa Bay Lightning also have a home game.

“There would be a lot of transportation issues that would have to be resolved,” Buckhorn said. “Ingress and egress, access to the interstate and a rail connection potentially.”

Jefferson High School

Likely the only site in West Shore that could fit a ballpark, Jefferson High School would put baseball into the heart of West Shore’s mix of offices, restaurants and residences. The 10-square-mile area is the largest commercial office district in Florida.

The site also may appeal to the Rays by keeping baseball close to the team’s Pinellas fan base. What’s more, it’s close to a new transportation center that will serve buses, a people-mover connecting with Tampa International Airport, and any future light or passenger rail line.

But even the suggestion of repurposing the 52-acre Jefferson High site has drawn fierce opposition from parents and alumni. It also would require the agreement of the Hills­borough County School Board.

“Politically, Jefferson High School would be a nightmare to give up,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist. “But it would put it right next to the mass-transit hub that is going in.”

Derby Lane

Since 1925, greyhounds have raced at Derby Lane, which bills itself as the oldest continuously operated dog track in the world.

Close to the Gandy Bridge and just south of the Howard Frankland Bridge, the 130-acre site has ample parking and offers scenic views of Tampa Bay and the Tampa skyline in the distance.

On the Pinellas side, access to the track soon will benefit from construction of an overpass on Gandy Boulevard, making it easy to get to and from I-275. But the other end of Gandy Bridge in Tampa remains congested, even without the traffic from a new ballpark.

Richard Winning, president of the family-owned track, said he never has had any contact with the Rays about a purchase and remains ambivalent about whether the family would sell the site.

Still, greyhound racing has declined in popularity, prompting the track to seek other sources of income including poker games and simulcasting, which could make an offer for the land more attractive.

“We have a large property in a great location,” Winning said. “My door is not shut; if somebody comes to talk to me it doesn’t mean they would budge me.”

Tampa Greyhound Track

If one dog track doesn’t work for baseball, maybe another will.

The 25-acre track on Nebraska Avenue has been championed by Crist, the Hillsborough commissioner, as the best spot in Tampa Bay for the Rays.

The track is between two exits on I-275 and close to U.S. 41. It also is near two CSX railroad lines linking Lakeland to Clearwater and Miami to Atlanta. That could prove useful because CSX officials recently have indicated a willingness to consider allowing commuter rail on its tracks.

“It’s right in the middle of everything and highly visible,” Crist said. “Whatever messaging you put on the billboard or on the side of the building, everybody will see it every day.”

The track is also in an enterprise zone and some parts could qualify for designation as a federal “brownfield” site, making it eligible for environmental cleanup and redevelopment funds.

Less clear is whether the track is for sale.

Dog races no longer are held there and the site was bought by the owners of horse track Tampa Bay Downs — in part, Crist said, because of the possibility it could end up as a baseball stadium.

But the new owners have benefited from revenue through poker games and pari-mutuel betting on sports like off-track horse racing, dog racing and jai alai. They may not be as ready to sell now, Crist said.

“It’s a new dynamic that is in play that wasn’t in play back then,” he said.

Toytown/Gateway

Even if the Rays are not convinced a former landfill is the right site for the future of professional baseball in Tampa Bay, the Atlanta Braves are — at least for spring training.

The MLB team is part of a group proposing a $662 million development for the site, including a 10,000-seat ballpark, hotel and apartments.

Pinellas commissioners have held off making a decision on the future of the 240-acre site until next year. The property is close to I-275 and access would improve with the completion of the Gateway Express project, linking I-275 to U.S. 19.

Among the challenges would be stabilizing the former landfill, about 40 feet high, while dealing with runoff and methane gas emissions from rotting garbage. The Braves proposal estimates environmental work and site preparation would run to $50 million.

Welch, the Pinellas commissioner, said there are other properties in the Gateway area that also could work for baseball.

“It’s a prime location in Pinellas County,” he said, “with easy access to Hills­borough County and the rest of Tampa Bay.”

 

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