An ambitious proposal by a former baseball star and a local developer to create an enormous sports complex on a former landfill in St. Petersburg has some allure. A modern spring training facility that could accommodate perhaps two Major League Baseball teams would be attractive, and so would the prospect of thousands of youths playing all sorts of sports on the many new fields and facilities. But there are plenty of questions for the Pinellas County Commission to consider before it decides to negotiate with the developer — and it should heed MLB’s warning that the first priority is a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
The county-owned landfill along Interstate 275 known as Toytown has been closed for three decades, and over the years a variety of plans for developing the 240-acre site have come and gone. In the latest round, a county panel has ranked first the SportsPark proposal by a group that includes St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair and former baseball player Gary Sheffield, who has deep Tampa Bay roots. Most eye-catching is the serious interest by the Atlanta Braves to move their spring training site from the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World to St. Petersburg, and the potential for the complex to add a second team. Perhaps that could keep in Pinellas the Toronto Blue Jays, who train in Dunedin and want a new facility.
As usual, the key issue is money. SportsPark wants more than $10 million a year from the county resort tax for a spring training complex for two teams. That is less money than it would cost to build separate facilities for the Braves in St. Petersburg and the Blue Jays in Dunedin, but it would take a big chunk of the resort tax on hotel rooms. Earmarking that much money for a spring training facility would make it unlikely that Pinellas also could come up with at least another $7 million a year in resort taxes to help pay for a new home for the Rays.
Of course, there would be more clarity if the St. Petersburg City Council would have approved Mayor Rick Kriseman’s reasonable plan to let the Rays look at potential stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for two years. That process would have been well along by now, and the County Commission could make a more informed decision about how to allocate resort tax money. Instead, four council members have created a stalemate and fail to recognize that the city is losing negotiating leverage with the Rays and an opportunity to pursue a $1 billion redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site. Fortunately, two of those obstructionists are term-limited out of office in January and a third, Steve Kornell, is up for re-election in November. In the meantime county commissioners are in a box, poised to decide whether to pursue the SportsPark proposal before the Rays can even look for new stadium sites. And MLB and the Rays are not happy that another sports project has jumped the line.
There are other issues about the SportsPark proposal that deserve close scrutiny. Its big projections of new jobs and tax revenue appear optimistic. It’s unclear whether there is enough demand in the youth and amateur sports world for another large complex. And in addition to the resort tax money it counts on millions in public money for marketing and for significant road projects to access the site.
In short, county commissioners should keep their eye on the ball. It would be foolish to heavily invest in an effort to bring another baseball team in for spring training at the expense of reducing the options for keeping Tampa Bay’s own Major League franchise in the region.