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.