TAMPA — If ever there was a morning to test Tampa and St. Petersburg’s spirit of cross-bay regionalism, it was Friday morning.
The top headline was about a news conference later today where Hillsborough officials expect the Tampa Bay Rays to announce their preference for an Ybor City site for a new baseball stadium.
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So when the chairs of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce took the microphone at a breakfast meeting for a joint Q&A, the question was inevitable.
"What can you tell us about the Tampa Bay Rays this morning?" an audience member asked at Café con Tampa, a weekly current event discussion group.
"Anne," Tampa chamber chairman Steven Bernstein said, getting a big laugh, "would you like to take the lead on this?"
"Are you sure we’re still friends?" St. Pete chamber chairwoman Anne Drake McMullen said. "So, yeah, the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
"The answer, of course, is we want the Rays to stay in St. Petersburg," she said. "Absolutely. We want them to stay at Tropicana Field. Unequivocally. If they can’t — if they choose not to — we certainly want them to be in the region. That’s been our position all along. Mayor Kriseman, that’s been his position all around."
Looking ahead, she said, the future is bright, and St. Petersburg has prepared plans to redevelop the area around Tropicana Field whether the Rays stay or move.
"We have 86 acres of prime real estate in the middle of our urban core," she said. "What city has that opportunity? With every challenge comes an opportunity. ... We’re ready to pull the trigger on that and ready to move forward. We want the Rays to stay here. That’s the bottom line. We need them to stay here, stay in our region. They’re good for us all. We’d like them to stay in St. Pete. But as long as they stay here, we’re good with that. We don’t want them to go to Canada or anywhere else."
"The first priority is to keep them in Tampa Bay," he said. "We’re the Tampa Bay Rays. If the location ends up being in St. Pete, you can bet we’ll be supporting them. ... The reality is if it’s not St. Pete, if it is Tampa, I hope we’ll get behind them as a region. It’s an exciting opportunity."
Stadiums and their financing are controversial, Bernstein said, but "sometimes you have to be outside yourself a little bit and ask yourself, if we never had baseball here, what would we be doing to go out and chase a Major League Baseball franchise? I think most of us, setting aside all the business issues, would rally around that so that we could take our kid to the ballpark or our grandkid and give them that experience. The Rays are part of our identity as a region. Baseball is part of our identity as a region. We are a spring training mecca."
After the breakfast, Bernstein said he hadn’t been told much about the campaign planned by Tampa Bay Rays 2020, a new nonprofit group formed by former Tampa chamber chairmen Ron Christaldi and Chuck Sykes, to build business support for moving the team to Tampa.
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But he said he does expect that Major League Baseball will look to Tampa’s business community to demonstrate that it is willing, capable and ready of supporting the team in Tampa.
"And I’m confident that it will," he said.
That said, the future of where the Rays play was not the first thing on the minds of the 50 to 60 civic leaders at Café con Tampa, a nonpartisan, centrist and business-focused group. The first two questions of the morning were about local support for education, the next was about the proposed artwork for the new St. Petersburg Pier and the next was about transportation.
McMullen said St. Petersburg’s proposed bus rapid transit from downtown to the beach is ready, if the city can obtain federal funds to pay for it.
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"Once we have one piece of this in place, we can grow the rest of it" and "build on that," she said. "No options come off the table with bus rapid transit. We can always run down the path of light rail. But it also gives us the opportunity to put into place autonomous vehicles, if that’s what ends up happening."
Bernstein said the Tampa chamber’s policy group met yesterday and voted to support bus rapid transit — not as the only solution but as part of a solution.
"We support it because it’s another option," he said. "This is a region that doesn’t have the luxury, in my opinion, of squandering options."
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Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times