ST. PETERSBURG — The news Friday that the Tampa Bay Rays have chosen Tampa for their new ballpark was viewed mixed emotions across the bay in the Sunshine City, the only home the team has ever known in its 20-year history.
Some saw it as an opportunity. St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice has been a consistent voice for moving ahead with plans to redevelop Tropicana Field's 86 acres of prime urban land without a baseball stadium. That time has now arrived, she said.“This gives us an opening to move ahead with bold plans that will also transform our city,” Rice said. “St. Pete is a winner with or without the stadium.”
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Mayor Rick Kriseman has delivered a similar message for years: The city wins if the Rays stay. And it wins if they leave.
Former Mayor Bill Foster doesn't share that view. It would hurt St. Petersburg to lose the Rays, he said, and Tampa should prepare itself for disappointment.
Not only will weekday games become an onerous trek for Pinellas fans, Foster said, but Hillsborough residents should "hold on to their wallets" helping finance a new stadium in Ybor City.
And Foster, who engaged in a bitter fight with the Rays over their desire to look for a stadium site in Hillsborough County when he was mayor from 2010-13, thinks it's highly unlikely the team will ever break ground in Ybor.
In fact, he thinks it could be disastrous for the entire bay area.“They’re checking boxes off their exit plan,” Foster said.
First, he said: "Get St. Pete to weaken the use agreement. Check."
That's in reference to Kriseman's successful push to get the City Council to approve a plan that let the team look outside the city for three years for a new home. That's what made the Rays' announcement possible.
Second, Foster said, was Friday's announcement: "Go though the motions, pick a site. That doesn't cost them anything. Check."
Third? "When the financing isn't there and they're asked to foot part of the bill," Foster said. "Then, it's the region doesn't support baseball, your honor. Let us learn the words to O Canada!"
Rice acknowledged that losing a professional baseball team would carry a psychological cost for Florida's fifth-largest city.
"It would hurt to lose the Rays. It also hurts to have an empty stadium. At some point we have to be realistic about the situation," she said.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch reiterated his stance that he wishes the Rays well but thinks it's time to plan for the "impactful, equitable and sustainable" use of the Trop, built at the cost of bulldozing the African-American "Gas Plant" neighborhood in the 1980s.
But Welch did not share Foster's pessimism about the future of MLB baseball in Tampa Bay.
"With the right mix of corporate support, transportation and a modern stadium," Welch said, "we're more than capable of supporting baseball."