Hot spot: St. Pete (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 11, 2008 2:31PM; Updated: Tuesday March 11, 2008 5:32PM
The big plan
The Rays want the city of St. Petersburg to sell the 85-plus acres that Tropicana Field and its parking lots sit on to a private developer, and they want to build a new, iconic $450 million open-air ballpark at the site of Al Lang Field. The team's thinking is that the sale of the land will bring maybe $200 million or more. The mixed-use development that will take its place -- about one million square feet of retail, somewhere around 900 units of new housing, greenspace, a whole new area of downtown -- will provide millions in taxes that St. Pete and Pinellas County are not getting now. (The Trop and Al Lang Field take up a huge amount of downtown land -- as much as 20 percent -- and both are exempt from taxes.)
The Rays will use some of those monies, throw in some of their own (including rent payments of $10 million a year for years to come) and -- just like that -- St. Pete has a vibrant new downtown and the Rays have a new, 34,000-seat ballpark that they see as a vital part of that downtown. Their bold opening date for the ballpark is 2012.
The key part of this plan, and the one the Rays trumpet the loudest: No new taxes will be used.
That doesn't mean, of course, that some public money won't be used to make this plan work. A lot of it will, in the form of tax subsidies and the like. But the backers of this plan insist that no new taxes will be needed, and according to a Rays release "no funds that could otherwise be used to support city or county services will be used to fund the ballpark."
The plan sends up all sorts of red flags to all sorts of people. After all, taxpayers have been getting ripped off in these stadium-building schemes for years. Who's to say, for example, that the redevelopment downtown would actually work? If a developer paid up (some initial bids are due next week), who's to say people would come to live and shop in the area?
Why should the Rays profit, with a brand new revenue-generating ballpark, off of a public asset like the Trop and the land it's on?
And then there are the practical matters of a new stadium on the downtown waterfront: parking, transportation, infrastructure, environmental concerns in the construction of the new ballpark (the Rays will have to fill in about 2/3 of an acre of the bay). Not to mention the summertime weather in St. Pete, when it's awfully hot for an outdoor baseball game.
There are vociferous critics of the plan, of course, but among the louder backers are Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and an expert in baseball economics. (Zimbalist, in a December column in the Sports Business Journal, called the Rays' plan a "win-win for the city and the team.")
The new ballpark
The plans for the new ballpark, sketched out by big-league architecture firm HOK Sport, are nothing short of spectacular.
The key element for the park is a 350-foot tower in center field that supports cables that stretch over the field and stands. When the weather calls for it, large fabric panels can be pulled over the stands and the field. Much of the bowl -- which would feature the smallest upper-deck in baseball -- would remain open, allowing breezes through, even as it rains. With the fabric deployed over the field, the park would project the image of a huge sailboat from afar. (You can see an artist's rendering at majorleaguedowntown.com.)
A big sail, with a huge mast, on an open-air stadium on the waterfront? (The Rays and HOK insist that the technology for the sails is already there, and being done elsewhere.) No ballpark in America would be like it.
"Success in what we're about ... means having more fans falling in love with your ballpark. To do that, I believe your ballpark needs to say something. It needs to remind someone of where they are," HOK's Joe Spear, the principal in charge of this project, told SI.com back in '04. "It should be symbolic of its community, in some way, shape or form."
Step by step
City voters have to approve a new use for the land at Al Lang Field, a referendum that is expected to be on the November ballot. So, before then, the team has a lot of convincing to do. And then there's the matter of convincing local officials that selling the Trop, developing the land and building the Rays their new sailed stadium are all good ideas that will work.
Much of the convincing, perhaps strangely enough, could come on the baseball field. The Rays have one of the best teams they've ever had. Baseball Prospectus, in fact, projects that they will win 88 games. A winning team that generates excitement -- and, maybe, even some decent crowds at the Trop -- could give the Rays valuable momentum heading into that November referendum.
And, after that, who knows? On a cool March morning, down by the waterfront, with palm trees in the background, the bay just a long home run away and big-league players going through their drills on the field, it all seems within reach.
"At the very least," says the Rays' Kalt, "we're out there trying to be creative with this. It's starting the conversation."
A team can dream, can't it?
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