On deck in Rays ballpark quest: Tampa Bay’s business community

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BATTER UP: Tampa Bay Rays prinicipal owner Stuart Sternberg, left, at the Feb. 9 news conference where he announced that the Rays’ efforts for a new ballpark are now solely focused on a site in Ybor City. That puts the pressure on the man on the right, Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes, who with Tampa attorney Ron Christaldi, has formed Tampa Bay Rays 2020, a nonprofit created to rally business support for a Rays move to Tampa. OCTAVO JONES | Times

TAMPA — Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart says he’s ready to put his checkbook where his heart is when it comes to supporting a Tampa Bay Rays move to Ybor City.

So is the investment fund for the founding family of Ashley Furniture. So, it appears, are a couple of Tampa’s largest law firms.

And the rest of the Tampa Bay area’s business community? Would companies buy more tickets, book more suites or pour more money in sponsorships for a Rays’ ballpark in Hillsborough County? Would some invest in new development around a new ballpark?

Early reaction to the Rays’ Feb. 9 announcement that Ybor City is now their sole focus for a new ballpark is encouraging, says an organizer of Tampa Bay Rays 2020, a nonprofit group formed to rally business support.

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“A very good response,” Tampa attorney Ron Christaldi said.

It had better be, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said last week after a spring training media event at Tropicana Field.

“The business community here needs to be engaged in this effort,” Manfred told the Tampa Bay Times. “I understand it’s not New York. But there are significant businesses in this community that need to be involved in the effort because it’s good for the community over the long haul.”

A Times survey of more than three dozen businesses in Pinellas and Hillsborough found near-universal support for keeping the Rays in the region. But fewer companies, at this point, are talking publicly about increasing their spending with the Rays at a new ballpark in Tampa.

Nearly half of those companies responded to the Times’ questions about how they support the Rays now, what they think of the proposed move and whether their Rays spending would increase if the team moved to Tampa.

A half-dozen or so indicated they expect to step up their ticket purchases or other commitments. More said they want the Rays to stay in the Tampa Bay area, but were silent on whether they will spend more money on games.

It’s an article of faith for advocates of the team’s proposed move to Ybor City that the Rays need stronger backing from local businesses if they are to succeed more in Tampa than they have in St. Petersburg.

That’s been the case since at least 2010, when the ABC Coalition, a private, baseball-focused business group, reported that only downtown Tampa, West Shore and the Gateway area of St. Petersburg had the population density and concentration of businesses needed to support Major League Baseball.

“When you look at the folks who are buying tickets” to Rays’ games, “I would use the term ‘structurally broken,’ ” said Chuck Sykes, the Sykes Enterprises CEO and former Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce chairman who was the sole Hillsborough representative to the ABC Coalition.

“Two-thirds of the tickets should be coming from the business community; one-third from the general public,” Sykes said. “We’ve always been reversed.”

So now Sykes and Christaldi, another former Tampa chamber chair, have formed Tampa Bay Rays 2020 to try to flip that ratio.

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Tampa Bay Rays 2020 plans to roll out the “Rays 100,” a group of business and civic leaders supporting the move, by the end of the month, Christaldi said last week. Christaldi said he had already had one list of 100 executives and local leaders, from both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, with more than 100 additional volunteers also ready.

“The thing we’re struggling with is we want to include as many people as possible,” he said.

The Rays 100 is expected to act as a group of ambassadors for the Rays in Tampa. Watch for business members to sign non-binding pledges to support the move through increased purchases of tickets and sponsorships. Other members likely will not be executives, but community influencers.

Potentially, Christaldi said, efforts also could involve discussions with businesses interested in naming rights to the ballpark.

But with no design for a new ballpark — to say nothing of an estimated price or financing plan — Christaldi and Sykes acknowledge it’s too soon to say how much Rays 2020 is trying to line up in commitments to the team.

“Our whole focus is to put as much private dollars into this as possible,” Christaldi said.

There is, however, at least one more way local businesses could support the move. That’s by investing in development around the stadium site. Some of that land already is in the hands of Ybor City investor Darryl Shaw, who owns much of the ballpark site itself and is said to be in talks to buy a nearby affordable housing complex, the Tampa Park Apartments.

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New development is expected to generate taxes that could be directed into helping to finance a new stadium via a special taxing district or community redevelopment area.

Since Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg announced on Feb. 9 that the Rays are focused on the Ybor City site, Christaldi said he’s gotten at least a dozen people reaching out to him to say, “We’re in.”

Before then, “what I was hearing from regional businesses was we’re hesitant to participate right now because we don’t want to get in the middle of a regional tug of war between Tampa and St. Pete,” Christaldi said. Those concerns seemed to be alleviated by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s comments that he believes St. Petersburg remains the best site for the Rays but that the city is ready to redevelop the Tropicana Field property if the team moves to Ybor City.

That said, there is a wide range of opinion among executives on both sides of the bay.

At one extreme is Gonzmart, who owns the Columbia Restaurant. He said he’s ready to make a seven-figure commitment to move the Rays into Ybor City, where the sport has deep roots. (He tells a great story about the time during Prohibition when his grandfather threw Babe Ruth out of the Columbia for being visibly drunk. The incident led authorities to serve a search warrant on the restaurant in a fruitless search for illegal hooch. Ruth returned the following week with an autographed bat to apologize.)

“I plan to be very active in Tampa Bay Rays 2020,” said Gonzmart, who did not rule out the possibility that he will invest in development around a new ballpark. “If we could get 300 more people like me, it’s a done deal.”

Another big Ybor landowner, Third Lake Capital, is “committed to this project in a very significant way,” said Ken Jones, the CEO of Third Lake, an investment fund formed by the Wanek family, which owns Ashley Furniture.

Two Tampa law firms that handle legal matters for the Rays both anticipate their attorneys would go to more games at a Tampa ballpark.

“It is difficult to predict, but we suspect that our attendance would increase dramatically,” Holland & Knight public relations manager Olivia Hoch said in an email.

“Yes. We expect our firm’s level of support to increase as it becomes more convenient for our attorneys and staff to attend the games,” said Rhea Law, a former Tampa chamber chairwoman and the chair of the Florida offices of the national law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

More ambivalent is restaurateur Steve Westphal, who owns Parkshore Grill, 400 Beach, Cafe Gala at the Dali Museum and The Hangar on St. Petersburg’s waterfront and plans to have a concession at the Trop this season.

If the Rays move to Tampa, he might still buy season tickets for his company, but doubts he’ll continue to serve food at a new ballpark.

“I’ll happily support them,” Westphal said, “as long as they’re on our side of the bay.”

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.


Hillsborough: New Rays ballpark should go in Ybor City (Oct. 24, 2017)

Five things about the proposed new Rays ballpark site (Oct. 25, 2017)

Next step for Tampa ballpark dreams: Deciding how to pay for it (Oct. 26, 2017)

Out of the park: Will new ballpark spell the end for Tampa Park Apartments? (Oct. 27, 2017)

What could have been: Rays ballpark considered for these eight Tampa locations (Nov. 10, 2017)

Ybor City, flirting again with stadium, nearly landed one to host bullfights (Nov. 20, 2017)

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Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney

“Yes. We expect our firm’s level of support to increase as it becomes more convenient for our attorneys and staff to attend the games,” said Rhea Law, the chairwoman of the Florida offices of the national law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, whose clients include the Rays.

“We are very excited about the Rays moving to Tampa, as we have long believed that Tampa is the ideal location for the team,” Law said in an email. “We also think the Ybor location provides a tremendous opportunity to create an iconic ballpark and revitalize an area that is uniquely situated to house the new ballpark.”

Holland & Knight

“Having the team closer to our business offices in Tampa would make it easier for us to enjoy games,” Holland & Knight public relations manager Olivia Hoch said in an email.

“It is difficult to predict, but we suspect that our attendance would increase dramatically,” Hoch said. The firm, which represents the Rays in various legal matters, is not involved with Tampa Bay Rays 2020 but does have season tickets and supports “keeping the team in the Tampa Bay region, at whatever site best suits the team and the area.”

“If that ends up being the Tampa site, we will certainly support it — especially given the fact that the proposed site has the potential to revitalize a key part of east downtown, the waterfront, and Ybor City,” she said.

Tech Data

“I will certainly support the efforts of Tampa Bay Rays 2020,” said Tech Data chairman and CEO Bob Dutkowsky, whose family has season tickets. Tech Data also has season tickets as well as a suite at the Trop and is in its fifth season of giving local charities $250 for the first double play turned by the Rays.

“Major League Baseball is an asset to Tampa Bay, and we want the Rays to be successful and continue to enrich our community,” Dutkowsky said in a statement released through the company. “Tech Data will continue to proudly support the Rays wherever they reside in our region. Tech Data plans to maintain our valued partnership with the Rays.”

Pepin Distributing

Pepin Distributing in Tampa has four season tickets now and would expect to buy more if the Rays played in a Tampa ballpark, but director of marketing Billy Gieseking couldn’t say how many more.

Tampa General Hospital

“The Tampa Bay Rays moving to Tampa would be great for baseball,” Tampa General president and CEO John Couris said in a statement. “It’s not only great for our city, but it’s great for our region.”

The hospital said it looks forward to having the Rays as a neighbor and believes the move would help downtown on top of the Water Street Tampa project, which includes a new building for the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

“Who knows?” Couris joked. “If we make baseball more accessible to downtown Tampa it might even help recruit a few new medical students and doctors to TGH and USF Health.”

Tampa Steel

Tampa Steel & Supply doesn’t have a box or advertise with the Rays now, but does expect to be involved with Tampa Bay Rays 2020 at some level.

“Ybor City is a hidden gem,” said Linda Simón, marketing director for Tampa Steel, which has been in Ybor since 1983. “We see huge growth to Ybor as a side effect of the move. … We are very excited about the opportunity to support the Rays.”

Tampa Bay Lightning

“We enjoy a relationship with the Tampa Bay Rays, and we are supportive of their efforts to develop a successful business in the Tampa Bay region,” team spokesman Bill Wickett said.

“While we need to leave the business of the Rays up to those that run the franchise, we believe that for Tampa Bay to reach its potential as a major metropolitan (area), Major League Baseball needs to have a home in this region. We at the Lightning will continue to do what we can to help the team succeed.”


“BayCare’s St. Anthony’s Hospital has an existing in-kind relationship with the Tampa Bay Rays by providing fan care, which assists fans and players in the event of a medical emergency,” the hospital group said in a statement. “St. Anthony’s receives some in-stadium promotional support in exchange for that service.

“Having professional sports teams in the Tampa Bay area provides culture, civic engagement and quality of life regardless of where they are located.”

As for whether the hospitals’ support for the Rays would increase with a move to Tampa, BayCare said, “we will consider opportunities as they become available.”

Tampa Bay Times

The Tampa Bay Times’ sponsorship of the Rays has included tickets, signs, in-game promotions, advertising on Rays’ TV and radio broadcasts, print ads in programs and other marketing materials.

“We want the Rays to stay in Tampa Bay,” Times vice president of advertising and marketing Bruce Faulmann said in a statement. “The location of the team within the Tampa Bay region does not make any difference in our support.

“The Times has been a sponsor of the team since its inaugural season 20 years ago, and we plan to support them in the future,” he said.

Raymond James

Raymond James has bought Rays tickets, leased a suite and advertised and coordinated charitable giving with the team since it began playing.

“Our future support would be based on the economics of the sponsorship package and not on the location within the Tampa Bay area, as is the case with all our local franchise partnerships,” vice president for public communications Steve Hollister said by email. “We value both having the Rays in the Tampa Bay community as well as our long-term partnership with the team — wherever it is located — and look forward to continuing that relationship this coming season and in the years to come.”

Duke Energy

Duke Energy (and before it, Progress Energy) has supported the Rays for 20 years through sponsorships, ticket purchases and partnering with the team with cash for the “Victories for Veterans” program.

A backer of St. Petersburg’s “Baseball Forever” pledge program in support of the Trop, Duke said in a statement it “supports organizations that are within its service territory through its foundation and sponsorships.”

“While Duke Energy doesn’t provide electric service to the city of Tampa or most of Hillsborough County, sports marketing sponsorships are evaluated on a regular basis to deem appropriateness and gauge additional opportunities,” the company said.


“Jabil holds Rays season tickets and shares a commitment to making a difference in our Tampa Bay area community,” Michelle Smith, a spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg-based electronics manufacturer, said in an email.

“We’ve partnered with them to support programs in the Tampa Bay area, aligned with our three focus areas of education, empowerment and environment. Our 2018 donation of $50,000 to the Rays Baseball Foundation is split between the Childs Park YMCA (education), Crisis Center of Tampa Bay (empowerment) and Tampa Bay Watch (environment). We also sponsor MacDillville, where military personnel and their families enjoy Rays games. Jabil supports our Rays baseball team regardless of where they play in the Tampa Bay area.”


“We have been season ticket holders since 1998,” Nielsen senior vice president for community engagements Amy Rettig said in an email. “We do not contribute monetarily in any other way to the organization, but the Rays are current Nielsen clients.

“We were supportive of the Rays staying in Pinellas County where our largest facility is located, but we are in absolute agreement with keeping the team in the Tampa Bay area.”

“There has been no discussion on more support and no decision on other efforts at this time for the (Tampa Bay Rays) 2020; however, we would certainly hope to continue to keep seats within any stadium located in west central Florida.”


For the Tradewinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach, a Rays move not only would be unlikely to faze the hotel, it might even make its Rays-related marketing more effective.

That’s because about 40 percent of the resort’s business is from Florida and a big chunk of that is Tampa residents, many who make last-minute plans for a beach stay, said president Keith Overton.

“More of our customers come from Tampa than St. Pete so the value of our (Rays) marketing package goes up,” Overton said.

Caspers Company

“We have four seats (I believe in the club section),” said Blake Casper, CEO of the company, which owns more than 50 McDonald’s franchises. He also is the co-creator of the Oxford Exchange.

“We don’t currently have a sponsorship with the Rays,” Casper said in an email. “We definitely support the move and believe it’s the best way to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay. We haven’t been asked to formally join the effort but would consider.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

“Professional sports teams serve as a source of community and civic pride and play a large role in the identity of our city,” Bucs’ chief operating officer Brian Ford said in a statement. “As such, we support our fellow local professional sports teams in a variety of ways. Tampa is a vibrant and thriving city with a long and storied connection to professional sports, and we endorse the efforts to keep the Rays in our region.”

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