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On deck in Rays ballpark quest: Tampa Bay’s business community

TAMPA — Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart says he’s ready to put his checkbook where his heart is when it comes to supporting a Tampa Bay Rays move to Ybor City.

So is the investment fund for the founding family of Ashley Furniture. So, it appears, are a couple of Tampa’s largest law firms.

And the rest of the Tampa Bay area’s business community? Would companies buy more tickets, book more suites or pour more money in sponsorships for a Rays’ ballpark in Hillsborough County? Would some invest in new development around a new ballpark?

Early reaction to the Rays’ Feb. 9 announcement that Ybor City is now their sole focus for a new ballpark is encouraging, says an organizer of Tampa Bay Rays 2020, a nonprofit group formed to rally business support.

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"A very good response," Tampa attorney Ron Christaldi said.

It had better be, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said last week after a spring training media event at Tropicana Field.

"The business community here needs to be engaged in this effort," Manfred told the Tampa Bay Times. "I understand it’s not New York. But there are significant businesses in this community that need to be involved in the effort because it’s good for the community over the long haul."

A Times survey of more than three dozen businesses in Pinellas and Hillsborough found near-universal support for keeping the Rays in the region. But fewer companies, at this point, are talking publicly about increasing their spending with the Rays at a new ballpark in Tampa.

Nearly half of those companies responded to the Times’ questions about how they support the Rays now, what they think of the proposed move and whether their Rays spending would increase if the team moved to Tampa.

A half-dozen or so indicated they expect to step up their ticket purchases or other commitments. More said they want the Rays to stay in the Tampa Bay area, but were silent on whether they will spend more money on games.

It’s an article of faith for advocates of the team’s proposed move to Ybor City that the Rays need stronger backing from local businesses if they are to succeed more in Tampa than they have in St. Petersburg.

That’s been the case since at least 2010, when the ABC Coalition, a private, baseball-focused business group, reported that only downtown Tampa, West Shore and the Gateway area of St. Petersburg had the population density and concentration of businesses needed to support Major League Baseball.

"When you look at the folks who are buying tickets" to Rays’ games, "I would use the term ‘structurally broken,’ " said Chuck Sykes, the Sykes Enterprises CEO and former Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce chairman who was the sole Hillsborough representative to the ABC Coalition.

"Two-thirds of the tickets should be coming from the business community; one-third from the general public," Sykes said. "We’ve always been reversed."

So now Sykes and Christaldi, another former Tampa chamber chair, have formed Tampa Bay Rays 2020 to try to flip that ratio.

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Tampa Bay Rays 2020 plans to roll out the "Rays 100," a group of business and civic leaders supporting the move, by the end of the month, Christaldi said last week. Christaldi said he had already had one list of 100 executives and local leaders, from both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, with more than 100 additional volunteers also ready.

"The thing we’re struggling with is we want to include as many people as possible," he said.

The Rays 100 is expected to act as a group of ambassadors for the Rays in Tampa. Watch for business members to sign non-binding pledges to support the move through increased purchases of tickets and sponsorships. Other members likely will not be executives, but community influencers.

Potentially, Christaldi said, efforts also could involve discussions with businesses interested in naming rights to the ballpark.

But with no design for a new ballpark — to say nothing of an estimated price or financing plan — Christaldi and Sykes acknowledge it’s too soon to say how much Rays 2020 is trying to line up in commitments to the team.

"Our whole focus is to put as much private dollars into this as possible," Christaldi said.

There is, however, at least one more way local businesses could support the move. That’s by investing in development around the stadium site. Some of that land already is in the hands of Ybor City investor Darryl Shaw, who owns much of the ballpark site itself and is said to be in talks to buy a nearby affordable housing complex, the Tampa Park Apartments.

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New development is expected to generate taxes that could be directed into helping to finance a new stadium via a special taxing district or community redevelopment area.

Since Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg announced on Feb. 9 that the Rays are focused on the Ybor City site, Christaldi said he’s gotten at least a dozen people reaching out to him to say, "We’re in."

Before then, "what I was hearing from regional businesses was we’re hesitant to participate right now because we don’t want to get in the middle of a regional tug of war between Tampa and St. Pete," Christaldi said. Those concerns seemed to be alleviated by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s comments that he believes St. Petersburg remains the best site for the Rays but that the city is ready to redevelop the Tropicana Field property if the team moves to Ybor City.

That said, there is a wide range of opinion among executives on both sides of the bay.

At one extreme is Gonzmart, who owns the Columbia Restaurant. He said he’s ready to make a seven-figure commitment to move the Rays into Ybor City, where the sport has deep roots. (He tells a great story about the time during Prohibition when his grandfather threw Babe Ruth out of the Columbia for being visibly drunk. The incident led authorities to serve a search warrant on the restaurant in a fruitless search for illegal hooch. Ruth returned the following week with an autographed bat to apologize.)

"I plan to be very active in Tampa Bay Rays 2020," said Gonzmart, who did not rule out the possibility that he will invest in development around a new ballpark. "If we could get 300 more people like me, it’s a done deal."

Another big Ybor landowner, Third Lake Capital, is "committed to this project in a very significant way," said Ken Jones, the CEO of Third Lake, an investment fund formed by the Wanek family, which owns Ashley Furniture.

Two Tampa law firms that handle legal matters for the Rays both anticipate their attorneys would go to more games at a Tampa ballpark.

"It is difficult to predict, but we suspect that our attendance would increase dramatically," Holland & Knight public relations manager Olivia Hoch said in an email.

"Yes. We expect our firm’s level of support to increase as it becomes more convenient for our attorneys and staff to attend the games," said Rhea Law, a former Tampa chamber chairwoman and the chair of the Florida offices of the national law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

More ambivalent is restaurateur Steve Westphal, who owns Parkshore Grill, 400 Beach, Cafe Gala at the Dali Museum and The Hangar on St. Petersburg’s waterfront and plans to have a concession at the Trop this season.

If the Rays move to Tampa, he might still buy season tickets for his company, but doubts he’ll continue to serve food at a new ballpark.

"I’ll happily support them," Westphal said, "as long as they’re on our side of the bay."

MORE: Go here for more Business News

Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. [email protected]

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: THE QUEST FOR A TAMPA BALLPARK

Hillsborough: New Rays ballpark should go in Ybor City (Oct. 24, 2017)

Five things about the proposed new Rays ballpark site (Oct. 25, 2017)

Next step for Tampa ballpark dreams: Deciding how to pay for it (Oct. 26, 2017)

Out of the park: Will new ballpark spell the end for Tampa Park Apartments? (Oct. 27, 2017)

What could have been: Rays ballpark considered for these eight Tampa locations (Nov. 10, 2017)

Ybor City, flirting again with stadium, nearly landed one to host bullfights (Nov. 20, 2017)

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