Wednesday, February 21, 2018
News Roundup

Hey, Mayor: Get real. Hey, Stu, you, too.

By now, the debate is old and tired.

Either you believe, or you do not. Either you buy the argument that the Tampa Bay Rays should be looking at stadium sites in Hillsborough County, or you loathe the idea of giving an inch.

So why, after all this time, are we still arguing about it?

Better yet, what's it going to take to end this impasse?

The answers are both fascinating and frustrating. For what you have is a mayor preparing for a worst-case scenario, and an owner angling for the best possible deal.

The result is two sides with unrealistic expectations and, I would suspect, no hope for compromise in the next half-dozen years.

Here's the problem:

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, a lawyer by profession, is proceeding as if this matter will eventually end up in court. That means all of his decisions today are based on future legal arguments.

Giving the team permission to explore sites in Hillsborough, for instance, weakens the potential argument that breaking the lease at Tropicana Field would cause St. Petersburg irreparable harm. And that could hurt the city's claim for major damages.

From a legal standpoint, Foster's position might make sense. From a real-world perspective, it is a losing battle.

Why?

Because the Rays have no intention of breaking that stadium use agreement in 2014. Or 2015. Or anytime in the foreseeable future. And that means Foster could be basing his entire strategy on a lawsuit that may never come.

Rather than risk losing millions in court, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has to know he is better off staying at Tropicana Field as the lease winds down.

He won't be happy about it. And his frustration may spill over onto the field, where he could lower the payroll and turn a greater profit with a losing team.

That potentially means everyone else suffers because the team will not be as successful, attendance will dwindle, and St. Petersburg's reputation as a big league city will take a miserable beating.

So what are the chances of finding middle ground before that happens?

At this point, pretty bleak.

Foster insists on viewing the stadium use agreement as if the calendar will forever remain in 2013, and thus the Rays should pay hundreds of millions of dollars to leave.

The Rays insist on viewing the agreement as if 2027 will be here next week, and thus they shouldn't have to pay a hefty exit fee.

In other words, neither side is being realistic.

Foster has the upper hand today, but he has to realize that won't last forever. And by playing defense instead of offense, he is doing more harm than good for St. Pete.

For their part, the Rays must acknowledge that ignoring the final 15 years of a lease is a pretty big deal. They have to bring more to the table than suggesting the city would benefit from the Rays relocating because the land where Tropicana now sits is ripe for redevelopment.

That argument is akin to the Kansas City Royals saying the Rays have a surplus of starting pitching and Tampa Bay would be better off in the long run without James Shields' big contract, so the Royals shouldn't have to offer much value in a trade.

The Rays, rightfully, would have laughed at that deal.

Likewise, St. Petersburg has every right to expect more than the argument that the city might be better off without the team it spent decades and tax dollars wooing.

One possible solution:

The Rays guarantee St. Petersburg earns minimum tax revenues from that Trop redevelopment through 2027. If the numbers fall short, the Rays are on the hook.

That gives the Rays incentive to help with the redevelopment, and it gives St. Pete a guaranteed cash flow.

Whether that idea is sensible or idiotic is not the point. The bigger issue is the people in charge need to be talking. That includes the Rays, and that includes the mayor.

It is exceedingly rare for a team to get a new stadium while still in the middle of a lease, but it has been done.

In 1996, the Philadelphia Phillies had 15 years remaining on their lease at Veterans Stadium but then-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell made it a priority to get a new stadium deal completed before the end of his second term.

Rendell's rationale was that a stadium was eventually going to be built, and the city's leverage would weaken with each passing year.

"It's unfair to have the next mayor deal with that a little bit under the gun,'' Rendell told the Philadelphia Daily News at the time.

Philadelphia got the deal done, and the Phillies became a top-drawing team, winning their first World Series in nearly 30 years by beating the Rays in 2008.

That doesn't mean Tampa Bay will have similar success. It doesn't even mean a new stadium is the right decision.

What it suggests is that there are solutions out there if we can only agree to be reasonable.

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