Photos courtesy of ARCHIVES AND LIBRARY, HERITAGE VILLAGE
An estimated 22,000 attend a groundbreaking ceremony for the Florida Suncoast Dome Nov. 23, 1986.
The area’s attempts to secure a major league franchise exemplified the regional rift between Hillsborough County and Pinellas County in the 1980s, an “important transitional period” for the county.
Although St. Petersburg civic leader and former St. Petersburg Times publisher Jack Lake started to lay the groundwork for an MLB franchise by the 1970s, the struggles between Tampa and St. Petersburg over the site of the stadium during the 1980s often worked to the detriment of the entire region.
The actions of earlier Major League Baseball leaders, such as Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and National League President Bill White, made the area have to play extra innings to win the game.
The biggest redevelopment project at the time, of course, was the plan to transform the Gas Plant area in St. Petersburg into the site of a multi-purpose stadium and this required countywide support. By a 3-2 vote in December 1983, Pinellas County commissioners agreed to support funding for a baseball or multipurpose sports stadium in St. Petersburg.
Support was strong in St. Petersburg, though many hotels and establishments in north county questioned the value of using dollars from tourists to fund the complex that became Tropicana Field.
Early funding and loan notes were drawn up and executed before the end of the year. With the defeat of Gabe Cazares in his re-election bid in November 1984, an anti-stadium majority held control of the county commission and in mid-November 1984, the new commission voted against supporting the stadium initiative. St. Petersburg responded by suing the commission to assure that it would honor the original agreement, a case that the city prevailed in during 1985.
By this time, the Twins had courted with Tampa. In the mid-1980s, the Texas Rangers became a possible team for relocation as well. Things really became interesting in the mid-1980s. In July 1986, Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth informed St. Petersburg’s Mayor Edward Cole via telegraph that the city “‘is not among the top candidates” for a franchise. A week later, on July 23, a public hearing at the Bayfront Center attracted approximately 2,000 people to discuss the stadium, with supporters in the majority. On July 24, the members of St. Petersburg’s city council approved a measure to build the stadium by a 6-3 vote. “Build it and they will come,” was the thought at the time.
A well-attended groundbreaking took place at the future site of the stadium, on Nov. 22, 1986, with 9,000 in attendance.
By that time, the Chicago White Sox seemed to be the perfect suitor. The White Sox played in old Comisky Park, a venue that had shown its age since opening in the summer of 1910. On Dec. 5, this chapter of the baseball drama seemed to end, as the ownership of the Chicago White Sox said that the team would not move to St. Petersburg. After the Illinois Legislature proposed a new plan to finance a replacement stadium, leaders in St. Petersburg felt their hopes were dashed. However, uncertainties of this plan for a $120 million stadium allowed residents of the Tampa Bay area to believe that the “‘Florida White Sox” might be a reality. The drama resumed on and off for another year and a half with the Sox eventually deciding to stay put.
Construction on the Florida Suncoast Dome began on Jan. 5, 1987. The original stadium design, slated to cost about $85 million, allowed for flexibility and multipurpose events. The actual name was selected from over 19,900 entries and was announced on May 1. By mid-July, pockets of contamination were detected in some areas of the former Gas Plant. Remediation efforts delayed construction and added to the cost of preparing the site.
The Florida Suncoast Dome opened with a big celebration in February 1990. Later known as the Thunderdome and Tropicana Field, the original stadium configuration remained partially incomplete to allow for multipurpose activities. Costs to date were $110 million. In June 1990, Major League Baseball announced a timetable for expansion that would allow for the addition of two teams in the National League with an announcement scheduled for June 1991
Finally, on March 9, 1995, new expansion franchises were awarded to a Tampa Bay group. The Devil Rays played their first game on March 31, 1998 against the Detroit Tigers at Tropicana Field before a crowd of 45,369.
Editor’s note: James Schnur, the associate university library, Poynter Library, USF St. Petersburg, discussed “Building Bridges and Aspiring for the Major Leagues,” June 10, at Heritage Village as part of a lecture series offered by the County Historical Society. These are excerpts from Schnur’s lecture on efforts to build a stadium and bring Major League baseball team to the area.