ST. PETERSBURG — The leader of a coalition pressing for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays said Thursday that it is time for the club to approach the city of St. Petersburg about opening negotiations on its lease agreement at Tropicana Field.
The city "needs to encourage dialogue with the Rays," said ABC Coalition member Craig Sher before more than 100 people at a local political luncheon at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. "But it's the Rays' turn to stand up and tell (the city) what they want."
That line drew applause, and many heads craned to look at the expressions of five members of the City Council, who sat stone-faced at a back table. It was the first time a majority of the council heard Sher's presentation. Heads also turned toward the opposite end of the ballroom, where Michael Kalt, the only Rays executive in attendance, was sitting.
The city has refused to listen to the ABC report. Mayor Bill Foster, who has yet to hear it and was not in attendance, has said the group strayed from its mission in recommending stadium locations other than downtown St. Petersburg. The city's lease with the Rays doesn't expire until 2027, and city officials have threatened lawsuits against any group that lures the club from its commitment.
Shunned by the city, Sher has given the report to other groups, including the Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions. He has said it would be a "death sentence" for major league baseball in the Tampa Bay area if city officials try to keep the Rays at Tropicana Field for that long. He said the stadium was outdated when it was built in the 1980s and said the coalition found only three locations — the Gateway area, West Shore and downtown Tampa — viable for Major League Baseball.
Until Thursday, however, Sher's strategy was clearly applying pressure on city officials. But he shifted a bit by saying it is up to the Rays to initiate new stadium talks.
After the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club luncheon, the Rays' Kalt brushed off Sher's advice.
"The season has just started," said Kalt, the team's senior vice president of development and business affairs. "We're focused on the season right now and having a successful 2010."
City Council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Bill Dudley, Steve Kornell and Herb Polson heard Sher's speech, during which he made light of the city's refusal to formally hear his presentation.
"I'm gratified that five members of the City Council are here," Sher said, opening up his speech. "I'm pretty sure they're not here to give me the key to the city."
Another time, when asked whether a downtown waterfront stadium could work, Sher replied: "It may be on the waterfront; it just won't be St. Petersburg's waterfront."
One person asked Sher how Pinellas and St. Petersburg could possibly pony up millions for a new stadium amid budget slashing and layoffs.
The economy will improve, Sher said, and the region has to plan for when it does.
Curran, the chairwoman of the council, said Sher's tone offended her.
"I was surprised that he was flippant throughout," Curran said. "We really need to work together on this. The question needs to be, how do we keep the Rays in St. Petersburg?"