How Brian Auld, Rays’ man about town, built support for team’s Trop plan

When Opening Day arrives in St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay Rays president Brian Auld thinks he might feel out of the loop.

“I will know a lot less about the in-game presentation that I’m going to see that day than I have in past years,” he said. “And that’s fine.”

Auld’s content to have co-president Matt Silverman and others handling the action inside the stadium. He’s more focused on what’s happening outside.

For years, Auld has been the Rays’ top emissary when it comes to their future in Tampa Bay — the one who speaks at breakfasts and luncheons, who networks with politicians and developers, who has pitched to anyone who’ll listen the Rays’ vision for building a new stadium in St. Petersburg. Or Tampa. Or splitting seasons with Montreal.

When the Rays and global development firm Hines submitted a bid to redevelop St. Petersburg’s 86-acre Tropicana Field site, they included 30 letters of support from local and national businesses, nonprofits and community groups — five times the number of letters featured in the plan for the other group generally viewed as a favorite, Sugar Hill Community Partners.

Many are official team partners and sponsors, like Duke Energy and BayFront Health St. Petersburg. Others are community groups to which the Rays have given, like Feeding Tampa Bay and the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance. Still others, including the Greater St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, have added their backing this month.

Building such a broad coalition of support isn’t all Auld’s doing. But few, if anyone, have spent more time on it.

“I would say Brian Auld has more people have his number on their cellphone than any other president or CEO in the city,” St. Petersburg Chamber president and CEO Chris Steinocher said. “He’s that accessible. He doesn’t hide from that.”

Over the last few years, Auld estimates the topic of keeping the Rays in Tampa Bay has taken up at least 50 percent of his working hours.

“That’s been the most important message, and the thing that keeps many of us up at night here,” he said. “So that’s the most important place that I can spend my time. That’s what a lot of the conversations are about, because we know we’re going to need public support to do that. And people need to appreciate where we’re coming from in order to provide that support.”

No ‘arm-twisting’

Stanford- and Harvard-educated, Auld came to the Rays in 2005 as director of planning and development, brought aboard by his old high school friend Silverman. He was quickly asked “to absorb all the input on what needs to be changed” about the stadium, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said in 2005, “from the duct tape that’s holding together one of the walls to the leak in the roof to how the concession stands flow.”

For Auld, it was crucial to get out and be visible across Tampa Bay.

“One of the lessons we learned very early on in the process was, trying to tell the community what it needs is a losing proposition,” he said. “But if you really listen and you explain what assets you have as a big-league ballclub, you can really make a difference.”

Auld serves on more than a half-dozen local or regional boards tied to groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters, the American Heart Association and the Special Olympics. Meeting decision-makers is part of the job, though he said he doesn’t do it only to network. That involvement gave them a long head start over other Tropicana Field bidders when it came to asking for endorsements.

“One of the things that’s really special about St. Petersburg is it’s not a huge town,” Auld said. “It makes it challenging from an attendance perspective. But it also makes the Rays, in many ways, more important to St. Petersburg than the Braves are to Atlanta. We have personal relationships. We know all the City Council. We know the mayors. We know business leaders in a way that doesn’t exist in much, much larger cities.”

A former fourth grade teacher, Auld is passionate and direct in presentations, but also self-deprecatingly funny, said Bemetra Simmons, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a coalition of local business leaders whose governing board Auld chairs. (The board, she said, never discussed endorsing a Tropicana Field plan.)

“He has a way of taking complex things and giving them back to you in a very easy way to understand,” Simmons said. “We all have a tendency to overcomplicate things, and I always appreciate Brian doing that.”

Auld said the first endorsements came from organizations asking how they could help. Then he began asking partners for more.

“When they invited me, I said, ‘Certainly, I’ll sit down and see it and hear it,’” said BayFront Health president John Moore. “Once I saw it, I was extremely impressed. I’ve read through all the documents as an interested businessperson, and I just think it’s the best plan.”

Another letter came from Palladium executive director Paul Wilborn, who works with the Rays to select local artists for a summer poster series. Wilborn said Auld invited him to the Trop, where he was asked if he’d be willing to write a letter of support. Wilborn, a season ticket holder, was happy to oblige.

“No one from any of the other groups asked,” Wilborn said.

Auld said not every organization felt comfortable taking sides on such a politically fraught issue, and he wanted to respect that, with “no arm-twisting whatsoever.” If a corporate or community partner wanted to back another plan — and some did — Auld said the Rays didn’t press the issue.

“Having watched what occurred with the last (request for proposal), the potential for divisiveness in St. Petersburg around this was really high, and we really wanted to avoid that,” he said.

Keeping Tampa on the table

How much the endorsements will matter as Mayor Ken Welch picks a plan remains to be seen. Most offer broad support for the Rays organization without getting into the details of the proposal. Conversely, while city assessments of the plan do cite the letters as strengths, there is far more focus on aspects like financing, stadium operation and the site’s historical significance as a onetime hub of the Black community.

And the other finalist proposals have significant local support, too. Sugar Hill Community Partners may not have as many endorsement letters, but it does have “the most extensive local presence,” according to an evaluation from a third-party firm hired by the city, due to the number of Tampa Bay organizations it plans to work with. That includes support from the Pinellas County Urban League, Green Book of Tampa Bay and Studio@620, among others. One organization, the St. Pete Free Clinic, is listed as supporting both the Rays and Sugar Hill.

The Rays’ proposal calls for the team, Hines and their partners to invest some $1.8 billion into the development, and would include a $1 billion fixed-roof stadium east of Tropicana Field, a $10 million commitment toward a new Woodson African American History Museum of Florida, and a 2,500- to 3,000-seat concert hall. Sugar Hill’s plan proposes a dual-use stadium for the Rays and Rowdies, a 3,000-seat entertainment hall, a new Woodson museum and an endowment fund dedicated to affordable housing, minority-owned businesses and racial equity.

Both plans — as well as those submitted by two other finalist groups, Restoration Associates and 50 Plus 1 Sports — would include at least one hotel and large conference center, park space around Booker Creek, thousands of workforce and market-rate housing units and hundreds of thousands of square feet of office and retail space.

Asked if he’s confident Welch will pick the Rays’ plan, Auld hesitated, then said: “You should never count your chickens before they’re hatched.”

If Welch turns elsewhere, Auld said the team could still look toward Tampa.

“We’ve got to have another option available to us, and so certainly, that door remains open, and is something that we owe our fans,” he said. “It will be challenging to figure out how to do that on the Tropicana Field site if the mayor goes with another option. … But we trust and respect this mayor, and we are willing to work with him to try to figure things out in whatever way makes the most sense.”

Either way, he said, the years he’s spent pounding the pavement, drumming up support for the Rays’ various plans, won’t have been for nothing.

“It’s important that people recognize that that’s because of who we are as an organization,” he said, “not for some specific political aim in order to build a stadium.”