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Joe Henderson: Rays ready to unveil stadium design, but at what cost?

The Tampa Bay Rays know how to put on a show, and I’m positive there will be no shortage of “oohs” and “aahs” Tuesday when they roll out the design and, importantly, a cost projection for what they hope is a new stadium in Ybor City.

Owner Stuart Sternberg has dropped enticing hints about the stadium being a testament to outside-the-box thinking, and I’m sure it will be. The people running the Rays are smart, forward-thinking, and despite what the usual negative voices say, I think Sternberg really does want to keep the Rays here.

I believe their chronic bottom-barrel attendance is a result of Tropicana Field being at the far edge of the market. Goes a few miles west of the Trop and you’re trying to sell baseball tickets to grouper.

But, of course, it all comes down to dollars and sense – dollars, as in how much this stadium will cost, and sense, as in an honest assessment of how to pay for it.

I will assume Sternberg knows any finance plan where the city and county pick up $500 million or more is DOA. I will wager county officials know that even a hint at striking a deal for the Rays that would negatively impact basic services is political suicide.

Americans For Prosperity is already blasting Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn because the preferred site for the new stadium in Ybor was recently designated as an economic opportunity zone, making it eligible for federal tax breaks.

That group will stand in the courthouse door to keep one cent of public money from going to this project. Lots of people will agree with them, which is a big reason stadium advocates must be transparent about money every step of the way.

One hint of an end run designed to soak the public could sink this thing.

Yes, Tuesday is a big day in this quest – but the bigger day comes when the plan to pay for whatever the stadium will cost becomes public.

I’ve written before that Major League Baseball and the Rays should pay for this, but, AFP notwithstanding, I think we all know that won’t happen.

I also will reject any kneejerk notion that says if the Rays don’t want to pay for their new home, they should immediately pack up and leave.

That’s silly talk.

The Rays have value to the area; I would even argue great value.

Eighty-one times a year, they bring something here only a few metropolitan areas have. I’m not talking about economic impact, which is generally vastly over-stated by pro franchises trying to get a new playpen. The Rays bring something more important.

They add to the heartbeat of a city.

Whether you’re at the park or watching on TV, the Rays – and the Bucs, and especially these days the Lightning – bring something unifying here.

I have never seen this city more electric than when the Bucs won the Super Bowl. There was a palpable disappointment when the Lightning fell a game short of returning to the Stanley Cup Finals this season.

But I’m not sure that for pure jaw-dropping unexpected joy, you can top what happened when the Rays went to the World Series in 2008. Everyone was caught up in it. The playoffs, particularly Game 7 against the Red Sox, were exquisite fun.

How do you put a price on moments like that?

That’s the real question, isn’t it?

On Tuesday, we should get an answer.

Written By

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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