Rays Reality

Brian Auld, the Tampa Bay Rays president and CEO, took one for the team the other day with that appearance at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg. The “B” word was used: “betrayal.” And there was less-than-friendly fire about taxpayers helping underwrite a private business.

Auld underscored two points. First, there’s the best-case scenario that a major sports franchise can have a catalytic and synergistic impact on a community that can lead to a higher tax base–one that could fund a lot of services in the area. Second, the demographics and logistics of Tampa and St. Pete are markedly different. “Tampa is closer to the geographic center of this region,” pointed out Auld, which means, among other things, that twice as many people live and work within a 30-minute drive.

The reality that too many in St. Petersburg have too long disdained has been obvious. Tampa is both the geographical center as well as the business hub of the Tampa Bay market. And that was apparent when Major League Baseball chose Vince Naimoli and St. Petersburg over Frank Morsani and Tampa in the 1990s. It still ranks with Rick Scott turning down I-4 high-speed rail as an unconscionably short-sighted, counterproductive move for Tampa and Tampa Bay.

Ego was also involved. St. Pete’s inferiority complex kept ratcheting every time Tampa was awarded something regional, whether it was Busch Gardens, TIA, the original Rowdies or the Buccaneers.

And then there is this: Tampa Bay is an asymmetrical market without meaningful mass transit and lacking lots of corporate (season ticket-buying) headquarters. Its population is a mix of people from other places with other allegiances. There are better things to do in the summer–think: boating, golfing, playing tennis and cooling off in the Carolinas.

In other words, the one variable you can control–a stadium site–had better be pitch perfect. St. Pete–on the western fringe of the market never made sense.

Now, it’s reality check time. The last key variable, now that the Ybor City site has been agreed upon, is financing. And whether the Rays can write a big enough reality check for that “new urbanism,” roofed, “Raybor” stadium.

Amgen’s Choice

When biotech giant Amgen recently opened its $25 million Capability Center in the Westshore business district, it meant a lot locally. As in up to 450 jobs by year’s end. As in another major biopharma presence in this market–in addition to Johnson & Johnson and Bristol-Myers Squibb. But it also meant that the market had reached the point where Amgen could choose Tampa–from virtually every MSA in the country–without state or local tax incentives being involved.

Stadium Synergy

To nobody’s surprise by now, the Rays have formally announced that the team wants to build its new Tampa Bay ball park in Ybor City near downtown Tampa. “Raybor City” checks plenty of boxes. Assembled land. Actual, historic baseball (“DNA”) roots. The geographic center of a major market. The business hub of a major market. Incumbent, non-bus transit. The “new urbanism” vibe of a city’s core. Connecting Ybor to the Channel District to the Riverwalk. A Water Street Tampa complement.

Think live-work-play-stay synergy.

And yet.

Where is Jeff Vinik? His $3 billion Water Street makeover is a critical element in this location’s raison d’être for a baseball park. Is a Fortune 500 corporate-relo recruit more than enough of a priority? Are baseball’s logistics less than an ideal complement?

But there’s this unchecked box: Financing. The Rays will contribute a 9-figure amount. Will it be enough to matter for a roofed facility likely to cost north of $700 million? With no taxpayer-burden in the mix, it will need property-tax collection growth effected by the new stadium. It will need corporate support (a major chunk of all MLB season tickets are via corporations), even though this is an area hardly steeped in corporate headquarters. It will take city-county cooperation, hardly a governmental given.

It won’t be Rayboring.

Village Upgrades

* The announcement that Station House, the St. Petersburg co-working space, will be opening a second location in Tampa’s Hyde Park Village was notably well received. The revitalized–and still revitalizing–Village has an eclectic mix of retail, restaurants and bar scenes plus urban greenery and a focal-point fountain. Now 30,000 square feet will be dedicated to contemporary co-working space: in effect, the last “new urbanism” addition to complement upgraded amenities.

* Here’s another Village attraction that is much more under the radar. A bar you could feel comfortable in when you’re with your favorite date. Without deafening noise. Without Valley-girl servers. Without every wall bedecked with flat-screen TVs tuned to ESPN. It’s CineBistro.

You don’t have to go there for overpriced movies. Just hang for an hour or so in the relatively quiet, television-free lounge with an appetizer and a drink–and then watch to see if you recognize anyone answering the seating call for the latest “50 Shades” iteration.

That TIA Vision

Two takeaways from the well-chronicled opening of the first phase of the TIA makeover:

* The new rental car center and SkyConnect people mover are reminders of what has always been the signature of TIA. From inception–in a convenient, non-suburban location–it has prioritized passengers over planes.

* How ironic that since 1971 the Bay Area has been blessed to have a visionary airport–just ask Orlando about its inspiration–yet remains in the throes of ground-level, sprawl-enabling mess transit.

Gasparilla Outtakes

* Let others hype and over- or under-analyze the economic impact of the NHL All-Star weekend, but this much was a certainty: Pairing it with Gasparilla was a marketing coup. It was more than downtown hotels at 90-plus percent occupancy. It was also NBC network coverage that included all those establishing shots of the bay, the palm trees, the skyline, Ybor City, murals, minarets and the Riverwalk, in addition to flotillas and a massive, colorful parade. Lots of aerial parade shots–but no network cameras in the alleys.

And nice job by NBC to join the spirit of Gasparilla with an extended spoof featuring studio analyst Jeremy Roenick and the Krewe of Gasparilla. It played well.

* Having the Stanley Cup come ashore via the Jose Gaspar was beyond cool.

* The new normal for security is as noticeable as prominent surveillance cameras, police in the alleys and strategically-parked, traffic-blocking cop cars on streets leading directly into Bayshore Boulevard. Two words: Boston Marathon. Two more words: weaponized vehicles.

* We all know the history of Gasparilla is not exactly steeped in diversity. Especially before the 1990s. Race and gender meant white guys. That’s been changing, of course, but not until last Saturday had there been a krewe with a float specifically built for the disabled. The newly-formed Krewe of Sir Francis Drake crafted its float, Treasure Chest, to accommodate those across a spectrum of disabilities. Inclusive, indeed.

* Still surprised that there are no entrepreneurs selling Gasparilla-themed catheters. It might even mitigate one familiar feature of the parade: those annual rites of pissage.

* The big raucous parade is a juxtaposed reminder that the previous week’s version, the Children’s Parade, is notably special. It’s really big, really festive and really fun. It’s literally a family-friendly parade for all the right reasons with everyone in attendance focused on, yes, the actual parade. And it looks like Tampa: Black, White and Hispanic.

Sound Bite Bob

The successor to term-limited Mayor Bob Buckhorn will have an agenda that includes continued municipal momentum, budgetary challenges, community policing, CEO/cheerleader dynamics and more.

And it’s a given that next up will also have a tough rhetorical act to follow. Think: “Bring me his head,” a serial-killer reference, although it might have applied to local-government-intruding House Speaker Richard Corcoran as well.

Buckhorn’s recent response to CSX over the doubling of downtown “quiet zone” costs–to more than $7 million–is just the most recent example of vintage Buckhornian rhetoric. “It’s outrageous,” fumed the mayor. “We can’t afford it. … Folks who now have a complaint about the noise at 3 in the morning, we’ll give them CXS’s number.”

Sic(k) Transit Reality

It shouldn’t have to take an end-of-year retrospective or a resolute New Year’s list to remind us of our biggest priority if we ever want to fulfill our ever-ratcheting potential as a city and a region. It’s meaningful mass transit. That means rail. And that means more than just extending the downtown trolley.

Robbing Paul to repay Peter for better bus service and waiting for the state to underwrite toll lanes is neither a visionary–nor a practicable–approach to what we’ve needed for more than a generation.