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November 11, 2007
Rays float land-rights-for-stadium deal
The Tampa Bay Rays - who got the Devil out of them earlier in the week - revealed Friday that they're actively looking to get a new stadium built in downtown St. Petersburg. The new stadium would be built on the site of the city-owned spring training facility Al Lang Field, would hold 35,000 fans, would cost $450 million, and would be paid for ... well, that's the hazy part:
The Rays will front $150 million, about a third of the cost. They also plan to seek state sales-tax rebates that would amount to $60 million. That measure would require approval from the Legislature. As the plan currently stands, the team doesn't anticipate asking the city to levy any new taxes or divert money from existing funds to the new project.
They hope to draw the biggest share of the necessary revenue from the sale and redevelopment of the current Tropicana Field site, but are unsure what the value of that land might be. Early talks have centered on luring retail outlets that would have a regional appeal compelling enough to draw visitors from surrounding counties.
Let's break this down. The state sales-tax rebate that has been handed out to other Florida sports teams is actually $2 million a year for 30 years, which would only pay off about $30 million in present-day stadium construction expenses, not $60 million. So that would leave about $280 million unaccounted for, much of it apparently to come from development on the Tropicana Field site.
Tropicana Field, though, is owned by Pinellas County (and leased back to the city in a complicated tax dodge), so normally any money from developing that site would go to the county, not the Rays. Add in that Al Lang Field is owned by the city of St. Petersburg, and the Rays are effectively asking to develop two publicly owned parcels and keep the proceeds for themselves - and that's before knowing whether the team would even agree to pay rent to the city on the new park. It's yet another sign that, as I wrote last year, teams are increasingly asking for development rights in lieu of cash, since while they're just as valuable, they don't make for as many nasty headlines.
It's also worth noting that the Al Lang site, as pictured in the St. Pete Times, is way too small to fit a modern major-league baseball facility, even one with only 35,000 seats. Add in that the Rays say they'd realign the field so that home runs to right field would end up in the bay, like at the San Francisco Giants' park (this would also put home plate in the traditional southwest corner, to keep the sun out of batters' eyes), and it's almost inconceivable a stadium could fit on the current site without either taking some adjacent property or building out into the water.
The Rays' leverage to make any demands on taxpayers is limited, given that they have an iron-clad lease holding them to Tropicana Field through 2027 - so if the city says no, it's not like the team can up and threaten to move to Orlando. Certainly no one's a fan of the Trop, which was designed at the height of '80s fixed-dome ugliness - but with the city still $100 million in debt on the place, one would hope that local officials would at least ask the Rays to pay their own way before letting them out of their lease two decades early.