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Rays make it official: New stadium will be part of a redeveloped Trop site in St. Pete

Renderings of the new ballpark and redeveloped Tropicana Field site in St. Petersburg.
Gensler
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Tampa Bay Rays
Renderings of the new ballpark and redeveloped Tropicana Field site in St. Petersburg proposed by Rays and Hines.

Mayor Ken Welch said he believes the deal meets collective community needs and honors the historic Gas Plant District residents who were forced off the land in the 1980s to build Tropicana Field.

A 16-year odyssey that reached near, far and wide will end a long home run away from where it started.

The Tampa Bay Rays and the city of St. Petersburg officially announced Tuesday that they will build a new roofed stadium near their current home, Tropicana Field.

“Today we celebrate coming to terms with an agreement to make that plan a reality. Major League Baseball is here to stay,” Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said at a gathering at Tropicana Field.

The 30,000-seat facility will be part of the 86-acre historic Gas Plant District redevelopment project and will open in time for the 2028 season. There will be three seating levels, artificial turf, operable walls, a pavilion design.

“This is a project we will all be proud of,” Sternberg said.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg announces the new stadium deal during a news gathering at Tropicana Field on Sept. 19, 2023.
Sky Lebron
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WUSF Public Media
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg announces the new stadium deal during a news gathering at Tropicana Field on Sept. 19, 2023.

The stadium is estimated to cost about $1.3 billion. Sternberg has said the team would pay at least half, with the rest covered by the city through bonds and Pinellas County through its tourist development tax, a hotel bed tax for tourism-related projects.

There is still a public approval process that must take place over the next few months. If the agreement is approved, as expected, stadium construction would begin in late 2024 and be completed by late 2027, the Rays said.

Mayor Ken Welch said he believes the deal meets collective community needs and honors the historic Gas Plant District residents who were forced off the land in the 1980s to build Tropicana Field.

“The jobs, housing, office space, along with the opportunities for partnering with businesses that drive our economy, as well as the new businesses that will be attracted to this world class development will fuel our economy, create inclusive business opportunities and be a catalyst for progress in St Petersburg and Pinellas county for years to come," said Welch.

New affordable housing and jobs are part of the redevelopment.

Pinellas County Commission Chair Janet Long said the proposal will create 15,000 annual jobs for the area.

“The hotel bed tax investing in projects like this new stadium has an impact throughout the entire county by creating jobs, new county sales tax and additional hotel bed taxes,” said Long, who noted that “this is the largest economic development project in this county's history.”

Approximately 15 to 20 acres, including the stadium and two parking garages, would be owned by the county, leased to St. Petersburg and subleased to the Rays on a 30-year agreement with options to extend it to 40 years, according to the team.

“Today, we take a significant step towards honoring the promises made to the gas plant community some 40 years ago when I was a young man,” said Welch, who grew up in the neighborhood.

“As your mayor, I've never doubted that this day would come first because of my faith that was nurtured in this very place. But secondly, because I believe in our community and in the quality and vision of our leadership and our partners, we are so much stronger when we can work together.”

The playoff-bound franchise has fielded competitive teams over the past several years but struggled to draw fans to Tropicana Field, widely-regarded as one of the most outmoded facilities in Major League Baseball. This year, they are averaging 17,778 per game this season, 27th among the 30 teams.

That made the Rays, who also consistently have had one of the lowest player payrolls in the majors, a constant source of relocation rumors as the expiration of their lease approached after the end of the 2027.

The new facility is expected to lead to a stronger cash flow for the team that will help the Rays increase payroll and improve baseball-related facilities.

“It has not been an easy road while our commitment to remain in Tampa Bay has been steadfast,” Sternberg said. “The journey has been a bumpy one."

Regarding the decision to build in a location that has not drawn fans over the years, Rays president Brian Auld said the overall $6 billion Gas Plant District redevelopment will help attendance.

“We think there’s a number of things that are going to allow us to materially increase attendance going forward,” Auld said. “The first is that we’re going to have a better ballpark surrounded by a world-class destination, so we expect more people to come to enjoy that incredible ballpark and all the wonderful things we’re going to have around it.”

After not being allowed to negotiate outside of St. Petersburg for years due to league restrictions, the team was allowed to talk with Hillsborough County in 2016. While studies have shown Hillsborough is closer to more potential fans, efforts to get financing for a stadium in Tampa’s Ybor City area failed.

Hillsborough County Commission Chair Ken Hagan, who worked on trying to bring the Rays across the bay for 13 years, told WDAE 95.3 FM on Tuesday that Hillsborough officials had been making regular “viable” verbal offers to the Rays, but the team stopped responding in July.

“I’m a little disappointed, but not surprised. The reality is it’s an easier deal in St. Pete. They have the land, they have the development partner in place. But we are very fortunate to be one of 30 Major League Baseball communities. The most important thing is for the team to remain in Tampa Bay.”

Man in a suit stands at a podium inside a domed stadium. Other people sit to his left and right.
Sky Lebron
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WUSF Public Media
Speaking at Tuesday's announcement of the new Tampa Bay Rays stadium, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said, "We're excited to say that the Rays are here to stay."

Hagan said he believes a key part of the decision was that Hillsborough was unable to match the $60 million that St. Petersburg offered the Rays up front, because the county did not want to put that “burden on the taxpayer.”

However, Hagan said that, long-term, the Rays would have made “significantly” more money in Hillsborough County.

Other cities have also been mentioned as possible relocation homes, including Orlando, Nashville, Portland and Charlotte. All have expressed interest in getting an existing or expansion team.

At one point, Sternberg said the market could not support a team for a complete season and floated a planto split games between the Tampa Bay area and Montreal. Major League Baseball eventuallyrejected that plan, insisting the team remain in the current market.

This led to more intense negotiations between the team and local governments that ended with Tuesday’s announcement.

In January, Welch announced he had accepted a proposal by the Hines Co. development group in partnership with the Rays to redevelop the Tropicana Field site and surrounding Gas Plant District.

The neighborhood was once home to a historical Black community that was displaced by the expansion of the interstate and construction in the 1980s of what was then known as the Florida Suncoast Dome.

The final proposal was selected after Welch scrapped former mayor Rick Kriseman's preferred plan and requested a new wave of proposals, requiring developers to address the city’s need for affordable housing in the redevelopment.

The Hines-Rays proposal includes plans for 5,700 residential units with almost a quarter dedicated to affordable housing. The team's affordable housing lead is CEO of Dantes Partners Buwa Binitie, who is proposing 850 on-site affordable and workforce housing units and another 600 off-site residences.

“We're excited to say that the Rays are here to stay,” Welch said. “We also honor the history of this place. Behind me is the very place where I as a young man worshiped at prayer tower, Church of God and Christ, attended Sunday school, learned to be a decent musician.

“My story is a story of thousands who lived and worked and worshiped in this place in this neighborhood, that community was promised a stake in the economic benefits that would come from the redevelopment of this land."

In addition to the housing, the mixed-use redevelopment plan will have office and medical space, retail space, hotel rooms, senior living residences, a 4,000 seat entertainment venue, conference and meeting space, the Woodson African American Museum of Florida and parking.

Chart showing a series of numbers and pictures depicting the features of the Hines-Rays proposed redevelopment plan for St. Petersburg's historic Gas Plant district.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Hines-Rays proposal for the redevelopment of the St. Petersburg historic Gas Plant district includes affordable housing, office, medical, and retail space, along with a hotel and entertainment venue.

“I am inspired by the cooperation of a city and county determined to jointly see this project through,” Sternberg said. “I am inspired by a team of caring experts that has assembled this incredible plan for our shared future together. The legacy of this project will last long after many of us are gone.

“But I promise you this, we will work diligently and thoughtfully to make certain that this is a project of which we will all be proud of.”

Tuesday's announcement also came with a timeline that ends with the Rays opening the 2028 season in the new park:

  • October 2023: First Committee of the Whole with St. Petersburg City Council 
  • Fall 2023: Community Benefits Agreement and government approval process begins
  • Early 2024: St. Petersburg City Council votes on stadium and development agreements.
  • Fall 2024: Construction to begin on infrastructure and phase one development.
  • Fall 2027: Phase one development opens alongside the new Rays ballpark
  • Opening Day 2028

Business owners around Tropicana Field expressed delight with the news. The city has been looking to redevelop the Gas Plant site since 2016.

Edel Fernandez owns a small sandwich shop on Central Avenue, two blocks from Tropicana Field. He says about half of his business on game days comes from fans.

"The business that we make here, it's about 50%. When we got real good games, it’s even more," Fernandez says.

Just down the block is Waleed Kaleel, the owner of Zaytoon Grill. He's run the restaurant since 2015. He says making a stadium part of the new development is a good thing.

"It would help with a lot. It would help a lot. I just want my rent to stay down a little bit. It's getting really expensive," Kaleel says.

Megan Ann manages the Peace of Mind Smoke Shop on Central Avenue.

"Yes, a lot of foot traffic, a lot of people walking around on Central, which is where we are located, 16th and Central (Avenue). Usually no parking. Usually people come in, it's usually busy in here, too. People want to get their supplies."

Local lawmakers and other figures were quick to weigh in on the new plan on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and former Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who had both expressed interest in bringing the Rays to their city, spoke positively of the proposal.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) hailed the decision, saying she was "committed to lifting our neighborhoods with better infrastructure, transit and investment."

And the Tampa Bay Chamber, Tampa Bay Sports Commission Executive Director Rob Higgins, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers also posted congratulatory messages.

WUSF's Gabriella Paul, Steve Newborn, Matthew Peddie, Mary Shedden and Mark Schreiner contributed to this report.

I’m the online producer for Health News Florida, a collaboration of public radio stations and NPR that delivers news about health care issues.
As a host and reporter for WUSF, my goal is to unearth and highlight issues that wouldn’t be covered otherwise. If I truly connect with my audience as I relay to them the day’s most important stories and make them think about an issue past the point that I’ve said it in a newscast, that’s a success in my eyes.
As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.