Local community still wary about Tampa Bay Rays’ stadium development plans

When St. Petersburg leaders unveiled redevelopment plans that included a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, they touted the project as a major investment in a historically neglected community.

On Tuesday, months-long talks about the Major League Baseball team’s future and the historic Gas Plant District were finalized.

A new, 30,000 seat, domed stadium will be built near the Ray’s current ballpark, Tropicana Field, which means the Ray’s team will remain in St. Petersburg. Construction is set to begin in 2024 and the stadium expected to open in 2028.

But the nearly $1.3 billion state-of-the-art stadium is part of a much larger $6 billion investment in redeveloping the 86-acre Gas Plant District — which includes mixed-use housing, public parks, an array of businesses, a museum and other amenities.

Local officials call it the largest economic development project in Pinellas County history, as well as an opportunity to reinvest in the neighborhoods and residents who were displaced by past revitalization projects.

Decades ago, the Gas Plant District was home to a thriving Black community until eminent domain and neighborhood revitalization forced residents and businesses out to eventually make way for Tropicana Field.

Plans for 1,200 affordable housing units (up from a previous projection of 859) and about $50 million in funding dedicated to community-focused programs are aimed towards “righting those past wrongs,” according to St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch.

“That community was promised a stake in the economic benefits that would come from the redevelopment of this land and the agreement we have forged with the Hines-Rays Group will finally honor that promise,” said Welch, who grew up in the Gas Plant District.

Those community benefits include funding to support small, minority-owned businesses; diverse hiring and supplier contracts; educational programs in South St. Petersburg; community centers; design of the Woodson African American Museum; and community outreach among other equity initiatives.

Local officials hope to leverage the economic boost from renewed tourism to the community’s benefit.

But residents and activists are skeptical that the development will serve the surrounding neighborhoods and truly honor the site’s past.

Dylan Dames is the Pinellas leader for Faith in Florida, a nonprofit that has spoken out against the project.

“If there is a way for people that represent the workforce housing portion of the city to get affordable housing and be able to live and not pay over half of their income on rent and the Rays can still profit, fine. We are totally fine with the Rays staying in St. Pete,” said Dames.

“If they do it as a tourist attraction that extracts and leeches from public resources, then that’s not something that we can stand for.”

Bishop Manuel Sykes echoed those doubts. Sykes is the pastor at the Bethel Community Baptist Church, whose original building once stood near the site of the Tropicana Field before being demolished.

Bishop Manuel Sykes gestures toward a model of the original Bethel Community Baptist Church in the historic Gas Plant District.

Nancy Guan

Bishop Manuel Sykes gestures toward a model of the original Bethel Community Baptist Church in the historic Gas Plant District.

Sykes said he and other congregation members remember the aftermath, and they believe that history is repeating itself.

“It was a lie back then, it’s a lie now,” said Sykes, who noted similar promises when the government razed the Gas Plant District.

“It was never enough to absorb the workforce that was abandoned when the gas plant was abandoned.”

Sykes said the economic boost will be a boon, but not to the struggling residents who are already being pushed out from rising costs.

At a Tuesday morning press conference following the Ray’s announcement, Welch dismissed those concerns as coming from a small minority.

“I don’t want to amplify a very small group of people who oppose it [the project] on a really rhetoric base level,” said Welch. “We’re now at a point where we’ve gotten agreement and we’ve got goals … to get the minority community ready to participate in those business opportunities.”

Dylan Dames, the Pinellas County Leader for the nonprofit Faith in Florida spoke out against the redevelopment project on the historic Gas Plant District.

Nancy Guan

Dylan Dames, the Pinellas County Leader for the nonprofit Faith in Florida spoke out against the redevelopment project on the historic Gas Plant District.

Dames said he’d still like the city to pursue bolder housing solutions, including keeping the land in the hands of the city. But going forward, he hopes local government officials and the Hines-Rays Group overseeing the development will continue to engage with community members.

“I would love a little bit more clarity. I think organizers and even journalists alike are guessing about where we’re at in terms of the sale of the land versus the lease of it. So some more clarity would be great and I think they should just listen to the public more,” said Dames.

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