Building a new ballpark in St. Petersburg: Throwing good money after bad - Florida Politics

Building a new ballpark in St. Petersburg: Throwing good money after bad

St. Petersburg is a lovely, vibrant city that is getting better by the day. I love its waterfront and its eclectic, revitalized downtown.

So I hope my friends there don’t this personally when I ask: Have your city leaders lost their minds?

I refer to the “Baseball Forever’ push to a build a stadium that will keep the Tampa Bay Rays within St. Pete city limits. This includes a recently released pitch by superfan Dick Vitale, who routinely drives from his home in Bradenton to watch his beloved Rays.

Awesome.

I hope, however, that sooner rather than later it becomes obvious that as awful as Tropicana Field may be, the stadium is not what has kept fans away by the millions. Unless St. Petersburg’s pitch includes a shape-shifting act that can move itself to the center of the sprawling expanse known as Tampa Bay, building a new ballpark would be throwing good money after bad.

It’s important to interject here that at least St. Petersburg is trying. The Rays have been free to talk with planners in Hillsborough County, but no specific plan has emerged.

Here is the essential truth, though: Location is everything.

A new stadium would have the same old problems if it is built where St. Pete leaders say it should be – on what basically now is the same spot as the Trop, which should have been ruled out long ago.

Have they forgotten the 2010 report from a blue-chip group called ABC (A Baseball Community)? It studied five locations throughout the Bay area, including downtown St. Petersburg, and concluded the following:

“Of the five major trade areas studied as possible locations for this new facility, three of them – one in mid-Pinellas/St. Petersburg, and two in the Tampa area (Westshore and downtown) – represent the best options in terms of demographic trends, potential fan attraction and corporate support. In addition, it is likely that as the Tampa Bay region grows over the coming decades, these areas will become more favorable when compared to the alternatives.”

Let’s pause for a brief history lesson, because you know what they say about people who don’t study past mistakes.

The push for baseball here started in St. Petersburg but quickly became a cooperative between both sides of the Bay. The original idea was a stadium located in the so-called Gateway area on the Pinellas side of the Howard Frankland Bridge.

There was the usual trouble finding a site big enough and affordable, but rather than solve the problem St. Petersburg city leaders ramrodded a plan to build what first was known as the Florida Suncoast Dome. We know it now as the catwalk-covered catastrophe called the Trop.

They did this despite explicit warnings from baseball leaders, including Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, that they were embarking on a fool’s errand.

I remember asking a member of the Pinellas Sports Authority why in the world they wanted to build in downtown St. Pete. His argument, oft repeated, was “It’s just a few more miles from the end of the bridge.”

Those “few more miles” made all the difference.

The Rays consistently rank at or near the bottom in Major League Baseball attendance.

From where I live in Hillsborough County, it is 37 miles to the Trop parking lot through horrendous traffic. Corporate season ticket sales for the Rays are scarce because companies found they couldn’t give them away to employees or clients. That won’t change if a new stadium is built in the same spot as the Trop.

There also is this: I would be greatly surprised if the Rays would even entertain the notion of signing another long-term lease for a stadium in the same spot as the one now – unless the fish in the Gulf of Mexico just to the west of the Trop suddenly start buying tickets.

When you’re trying to fill a stadium for 81 nights, you need to build it where the fans are. There aren’t enough of them in St. Petersburg to make this work.

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I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. I covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. I also was the City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. I served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. I have numerous local, state and national writing awards. I have been married to my wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and have two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.
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