ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - A new ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays will be built near the current one under plans unveiled Monday as part of a massive redevelopment project that also includes affordable housing, office space and retail in what was once a thriving Black neighborhood.
Mayor Ken Welch, of St. Petersburg, Florida, chose a partnership between the Rays and the Houston-based Hines development company from among four proposals to transform an 86-acre (34-hectare) downtown site where Tropicana Field now sits. Welch said the plan should keep the Rays in St. Petersburg for the long term.
"This team is the best partner for this generational endeavor, and now the next phase of work begins to bring this dream to reality for everyone in St. Petersburg," Welch said in a speech on the steps of City Hall.
The Rays have played at the domed Tropicana Field since their inaugural 1998 season but have considered moving elsewhere, such as neighboring Tampa, amid consistently low attendance. There was also a proposal to split their home games between St. Petersburg and Montreal that was rejected by Major League Baseball.
Rays President Brian Auld, who attended the mayor's event, said in a brief interview it is "a thrill" to see the project take a major step forward. The plan calls for a new domed stadium to be ready for the 2028 season opener; the Rays' current stadium lease is up in 2027. Renderings indicate the old stadium would be demolished.
"This selection validates all the hard work," Auld said.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said last year that there is a "sense of urgency" for the Rays to resolve their stadium issue and that MLB wants the team to remain in the Tampa Bay area.
"We think Tampa is a major league market and we want to find a solution that makes the club economically viable in that market," Manfred said then.
Details remain to be worked out over the next several years, including how to finance the project among the Rays, the city, Pinellas County and other entities. Welch, who is St. Petersburg's first Black mayor, emphasized that a key goal is to restore a majority Black neighborhood known as the Gas Plant District that was ousted by the stadium and a highway.
The broader plan includes about 5,700 housing units - a large chunk of them to be deemed affordable - office and retail space, 700 hotel rooms, a 2,500-seat entertainment venue and a new Woodson African American Museum of Florida.
Overall, Welch said, the idea is to create a destination for people who come to Rays games, as well as build a new community.
"Folks want to be here. They want to be next to a vibrant downtown," Welch said. "It's not just for a ballgame but an entire experience."
Two proposals shepherded by the previous mayor were scrapped last year by Welch, who sought to focus more on affordable housing and job opportunities at the Gas Plant District. The mayor's grandfather ran a wood yard business there before the neighborhood was essentially obliterated by Tropicana Field.
"I am a child of the Gas Plant," Welch said. "It will no longer be a dream denied."