New stadium, new city: Rays unveil Ybor City ballpark plan

The Tampa Bay Rays have finally unveiled their plans for a new stadium and, perhaps more importantly, a new city. Tuesday, the team showed off renderings of a state-of-the art Ybor City ballpark that would allow them to move from St. Petersburg to Tampa – if nearly a billion dollars in funding can be secured.

The proposed 30,842-seat stadium has a fixed translucent roof but sliding glass walls. Melanie Lenz, the Rays' senior vice president of strategy and development, insisted it would fit the character of the historic community.

“This is not a stadium," Lenz offered. "This is a ballpark. This is a neighborhood ballpark.”

The team's hour-long presentation at the Italian Club took place just a few blocks away from the proposed stadium site: A 14-acre plot of land bounded by Channelside Drive on the west, 4th Avenue on the north, 15th Street on the east, and Adamo Drive on the south.

That location, not far from the Port of Tampa on the southwest side of Ybor, is within the growing Channelside-Ybor corridor and not far from Water Street Tampa, a planned overhaul of Channelside being directed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinick.

"It's now time to bring Ybor City into the equation," team president Brian Auld offered. "Ybor City is the definition of local authenticity. It is brimming with multi-cultural history. It has an incredible baseball history to tell, too. Jackie Robinson stayed at the Jackson House. Babe Ruth cavorted at the Columbia Restaurant."

Close to downtown, the area has the “walkability” factor sought by the team, while civic leaders hope it would bring a neighborhood-enhancing cachet to an "underutilized" corner of Ybor that always eluded Tropicana Field in St. Pete.

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The attendance-challenged Rays have made no secret of their desire to leave their current domed stadium – a ballpark eight years older than the team itself – for a new venue, preferably in Tampa.  

The Rays’ lease with the city of St. Petersburg ties them to the Trop site until 2027, but St. Pete broke a stalemate with the team in 2016 by agreeing to a potential buyout option.  That buyout would be as high as $24-million if the Rays left the county, with reduced amounts if they stayed within St. Pete.

Lenz explained that the cost of this proposed stadium was just over $800-million – with 30-percent of that cost devoted just to the roof – but additional infrastructure upgrades, like a pedestrian bridge over Adamo Drive, would push the final total to $892-million.  

"But it's not just a ballpark; it's a real community asset," Lenz added.

The stadium could be ready by Opening Day of 2023, according to the team – except for one thing: Who is paying for it, and how.

"I think they really nailed the design. This is like a first date. Now we have to decide whether we're going to fall in love," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "If it doesn't make sense to the good of the community for the long-term, we need to be prepared to walk away."

The Rays acknowledged that funding sources are not in place yet, but they planned to focus on that part of the process next.

"We believe baseball can not only survive but thrive here in Tampa," principal team owner Stuart Sternberg offered.  "We're confident, we're committed, and we believe that we can get this done."