CLEARWATER — A community group pressing for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays finally got a shot at the public stage Tuesday, presenting 18 months of findings to an attentive but reserved Pinellas County Commission.
"The recession is horrific, and discretionary spending of American families is suffering," ABC Coalition member Craig Sher said, but "if we keep the Rays in the existing stadium for the next 17 years, it's kind of a death sentence for baseball."
Sher, an executive with the Sembler Co., also suggested that the coalition would disband after a few more presentations.
"We have done our job. We had no authority other than to study and present information," Sher said. "I suspect we will sunset soon and would encourage some other group be formed to push this thing along."
In an interview, Sher said Pinellas could use a sports authority — with legislative authority and a budget — similar to the Tampa Sports Authority that built Raymond James Stadium and the St. Pete Times Forum.
The coalition was created in 2008 by then-St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker after public opinion squashed a Rays proposal for a downtown waterfront stadium. Baker asked Progress Energy executive Jeff Lyash to assemble business and community leaders to figure out what, if anything, was needed by way of a new stadium.
The coalition concluded that Tropicana Field can't generate enough corporate support and revenue to sustain a competitive team.
But when the coalition began examining possible stadium locations in Hillsborough County, regional rivalries bubbled to the fore. St. Petersburg officials stopped attending coalition meetings, the city attorney fired off stern letters reminding the coalition that the Rays are contractually obligated to the Trop until 2027 and new Mayor Bill Foster spurned the coalition's attempt to present its findings to the City Council.
The Pinellas County Commission, which partnered with St. Petersburg to build the Trop, invited the coalition to speak but declined to discuss the findings or ask questions.
"We appreciate your time and energy by volunteering," commission Chairwoman Karen Seel said. "It's a great report."
With St. Petersburg officials rumbling about suing anyone who interferes with the Trop contract, the county attorney had advised the commission to avoid any discussion.
Sher's main points:
• The Rays need a modern, air-conditioned, retractable roof stadium and natural grass.
• The location should be more central to the region's population and business core.
• Without a new stadium in place before the Trop contract expires, the area risks losing the Rays and baseball's economic benefit to the community.