Tuesday morning at the winter meetings in Las Vegas, Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg announced the team will not finalize plans for a new Ybor City ballpark before their three-year window to find a stadium site outside St. Petersburg expires in a few weeks. The announcement all but locks the Rays into Tropicana Field through the end of their lease in 2027.
"We spent thousands of hours and many millions of dollars to make our vision of the ballpark a reality, a ballpark that would bring the excitement of Major League Baseball and stimulate an energetic and engaged community in the city and surrounding area," said Sternberg. "The result certainly wasn't due to lack of effort by any of the parties involved. And while I'm widely disappointed by the result, I'm not discouraged ... I want to thank everybody that's been a part of this project, especially the Ybor community who welcomed us with open arms."
. The club even released renderings of the proposed new ballpark in July.
A 50-50 split between private and public funds was expected to be used for the $900 million facility. Last week, however, Hillsborough County officials reached out to commissioner Rob Manfred in an effort to push the Ybor City deal across the finish line. Manfred responded with a strongly worded letter saying the proposal lacked details necessary to "understand the merits and feasibility" of the project. He also questioned the County's commitment given how long they waited to get him involved in the process.
"As Commissioner Manfred noted in his response to Hillsborough County, fundamental issues have yet to be adequately addressed," Sternberg said. "These include, among other things, site control, political approvals, private investor commitments, cost, and timing. And timing certainty."
Sternberg said he will not seek an extension to continue working on the Ybor City proposal or pursue another ballpark site outside St. Petersburg. In the unlikely event the Ybor City agreement comes together before the window closes in a few weeks, the opening of the new ballpark would still be pushed back to at least 2024.
"We planned this for a 2023 ballpark first pitch," Sternberg explained. "It became clear to us with a number of the milestones not being hit a couple months ago that this was going to extend to the 2024 season. Each season moves along, things get more expensive. Other particulars come into play as well. So right now, if you snap your fingers and everything happened tomorrow, it would be 2024, and the clock is ticking on that."
For all intents and purposes, Tuesday's announcement confirmed the Ybor City site was little more than a pipe dream. The 50-50 funding split was theoretical more than a firm plan, and other issues still had not been addressed. Neither the county nor the Rays confirmed their portion of the financing, and this late in the window, it make a ballpark agreement close to impossible. This was more of a long shot than the club indicated.
Now that the Ybor City proposal is all but dead, Sternberg said he will focus on finding potential stadium sites in the area, but the club's attention will soon shift to 2028, when their Tropicana Field lease ends. The Rays currently do not have a home after 2027 -- returning to Tropicana Field is a worst-case scenario, essentially -- and it'll take several years to get things sorted out if the team is relocated, either across the bay or to a new city entirely.
"We don't have necessarily a Plan B right now," Sternberg said. "We tried with this sincerity back in 2008. We've done it now over the past three years. Using a baseball term, you could say we've had two strikes. We've got two strikes right now. But we're committed to getting at it, and we'll regroup right now, go back to the drawing board and, I would imagine, come the new year, try to figure things out. We're a pretty resourceful group and determined group, and we'll try to use all those powers we have and all the intuition and everything else you might think of to get something done in Tampa Bay."