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Meeting dates set for Rays stadium talks with Pinellas and Hillsborough commissions

TAMPA — After months of talking about it, Tampa Bay Rays representatives will meet with government leaders in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties later this month to discuss their stadium hopes.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan confirmed that the Rays will talk to his board at its next regular meeting on Jan. 24. Less than a week later, Rays officials will meet with Pinellas County commissioners for a discussion that was previously announced for Jan. 29.

"I've been saying for three years, it's critically important that we have a regional dialogue about the Rays remaining in Tampa Bay," Hagan said. "I think transparency in this process also is critically important, so it will be in a public board meeting where the public can see and witness the discussion and everything is out in the open."

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's response to Hagan's statement: "I can only infer the Tampa Bay area he's talking about is St. Petersburg."

Any discussion about moving the Rays to Hillsborough would breach the team's agreement with the city, Foster said. The Rays are contractually obligated to remain at taxpayer-financed Tropicana Field through 2027.

Foster declined to say how he would respond to such talks, but St. Petersburg officials have previously said any meddling by other regional governments could result in lawsuits.

"As long as the first pitch isn't before 2028," he said, "they can talk about anything they want."

Hagan said there is no significance to the sequence of the meetings, with Hillsborough going first. It was strictly a function of when the Rays and both governments had openings in their schedules.

"Conspiracy theorists may think so," Hagan said. "The reality is the Hillsborough County Commission asked the Rays to make a presentation to our board and the Rays accepted over four months ago. We were the first government in the region to ask the Rays to speak to us."

Pinellas commissioners subsequently made the same request. Foster and St. Petersburg City Council members also were invited to that meeting. Foster said he's not sure if he will attend.

Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch also said the meeting order was inconsequential. Jan. 29 worked best for his commission's schedule, so late last month he suggested it and the Rays agreed.

The team generally has been reluctant to discuss stadium options during the season and Major League Baseball winter meetings prevented a get-together in December. Spring training begins in early February.

Welch hopes the question-and-answer session will offer clarity on where all sides stand.

"If you're going to have a productive partnership, you kind of need to talk to each other," he said. "Bottom line."

The Rays have been saying for several years that the Trop will not work economically as a baseball venue long term. At one point, the team proposed a new, open-air stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront, but withdrew the idea when it met public opposition.

Since then, the team has said it would like to scout locations throughout the region. A business group convened to study the team's future ultimately concluded it needed a new stadium and identified potentially better locations in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, including downtown Tampa.

Foster said he will only consider potential locations in St. Petersburg or the Pinellas Gateway area. The mayor said he has twice requested face-to-face meetings with Rays' owner Stuart Sternberg.

The response, he said: "Dead air."

Hagan has insisted that all local governments work together to ensure the Rays remain in the region while saying he is fine if the outcome means the team stays in Pinellas County. He sought a legal opinion from the county attorney's office that concluded that Hillsborough commissioners could talk broadly with Rays officials about their desires, so long as they don't talk about specific stadium locations or financing options.

He said he anticipates that the Rays will make a presentation to his board. He said he also expects commissioners to ask questions, but without getting too specific. For instance, he said he'd like to hear firsthand from the team whether its owners would prefer to be in Hillsborough County and what they believe they need to remain in the region.

So far, team officials have said only that they would like to do a comprehensive evaluation of all potential locations. They declined to comment for this story.

"I'm excited about having the opportunity to have a dialogue and find out exactly what the Rays' long-term plans, goals and intentions are," Hagan said. "Up until now it's been nothing but speculation and what little we read in the paper."

Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Meeting dates set for Rays stadium talks with Pinellas and Hillsborough commissions 01/12/13 [Last modified: Sunday, January 13, 2013 9:51am]
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