TAMPA, FL – The Tampa Bay Rays announced Friday that the team’s preferred location for a new ballpark is a Ybor City site in Tampa. The announcement was held at the Tampa Baseball Museum. The Rays have said their current ballpark, Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, is outdated.
Critics of Tropicana Field say the St. Pete location creates problems in drawing fans. The Rays have consistently ranked last in fan attendance among major league teams.
The Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg said at a Friday afternoon press conference that the "entire focus" of the team is to get the Ybor City ballpark built. "Ybor City is authentically Tampa Bay. This is where we want to be playing baseball," he said.
Hillsborough County community leaders announced a new nonprofit organization Tampa Bay Rays 2020 that is behind the effort. The organization is privately funded and "dedicated to bringing a new Rays ballpark to Tampa."
The organization’s website said: "Led by some of Tampa’s most forward thinking business and community leaders, our organization is the catalyst that will ensure the ballpark becomes a reality. America’s favorite pastime needs a home for generations to come in one of the country’s fastest growing cities."
Rays fans can sign a petition here to show support for moving the Rays to the Tampa site.
The kick-off event at the Tampa Baseball Museum in Ybor City was led by the co-founders of Tampa Bay Rays 2020, Chuck Sykes, CEO of Sykes Enterprises and Ron Christaldi, partner at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick.
"This is all about the future," said Christaldi. "Bringing the Rays to Tampa will transform our region and serve as an economic engine for decades to come."Sykes added, "This is a unique and rare opportunity to build a ballpark that will be a wonderful community asset for many years. Support from our business community is vital."
Christaldi and Sykes are former Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce Board chairmen and emphasized that a primary focus of the new organization is to garner business pledges for a new ballpark.
"Baseball in Tampa has a rich history dating back more than 125 years, " said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan. "It’s time to build a state of the art ballpark that will transform our county."
"The Ybor City Chamber conducted a poll immediately after our October announcement, in which 92 percent of the businesses said that it will be good for Ybor City," said Hagan. "The Rays are not going to stay in St. Pete. They’re either going to be in Ybor or another region."
"This is an exciting day for Tampa and more importantly a great day for our region," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "This decision is the first step in a long process and I look forward to working with Stu and others across the region to ensure this dream of a downtown ballpark becomes a reality."
Sternberg encouraged the community effort, saying: "The Ybor City location represents the finest opportunity for Major League Baseball to thrive in the Tampa Bay region for generations to come. We are excited to explore ways to weave Ybor’s rich history into a next-generation, neighborhood ballpark."
Local leaders in Ybor City also expressed their excitement about the possibilities of a new ballpark.
Jason Woody, CEO of Lions Eye Institute, lauded the effort: "Ybor is a phenomenal spot for a new ballpark. Connecting historic Ybor and downtown Tampa will create jobs and enhance the neighborhood."
St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman still favors the current location for the team’s new ballpark.
"This is the process unfolding as envisioned in order to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay. The easy part is picking a favorite site. Hard part is figuring out the rest. I believe the Trop site is the best future home for the Rays, but we will also begin to master plan the site without a stadium," Kriseman tweeted Thursday.
The competition for a new Rays stadium site has been waged between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and the selection of the site near Ybor City by Hillsborough County officials last year was considered a significant step in the possible relocation of the team from St. Petersburg.
Hillsborough and Pinellas are the only counties competing for a new stadium under an agreement between the Rays and the city of St. Petersburg reached in January 2016. A rendering of the potential Hillsborough stadium site shows a ballpark between Channelside Drive on the west and North 15th Street on the east.
Hagan said the county has reached a deal to gain control of roughly 14 acres in the Ybor City-Channel District area near downtown. He said the site has access to Ybor parking garages, the street car line (which could be expanded) and a possible marina. He said Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has toured the area.
The stadium could cost more than $600 million and Hagan has said that working out a financing plan will be difficult.
He said the Rays will need to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to a new ballpark. The era of publicly funded sports stadiums is over, Hagan said. He said the county will not propose a sales tax increase to pay for a new stadium, such as the tax hike that generated money for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stadium.
The county commissioner has said there will be "no sweetheart" deals for the new ballpark.
This will be a complex financial transaction and there will be several levels of financial support. @HillsboroughFL commissioner Hagan and I have said for many years that we will not place the entire burden on taxpayers. We are going to have to sharpen our pencils on both sides.— Bob Buckhorn (@BobBuckhorn) February 9, 2018
Image of Tropicana Field via AP/Chris O’Meara