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Foster open to a Rays stadium in Pinellas outside city limits

The Rays’ contract with St. Petersburg has them playing at Tropicana Field, above, until 2027, but the team’s ownership has said it wants to move the club to a new stadium before then.

Associated Press

The Rays’ contract with St. Petersburg has them playing at Tropicana Field, above, until 2027, but the team’s ownership has said it wants to move the club to a new stadium before then.

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster is proposing changes to the city's contract with the Tampa Bay Rays that would allow the club, for the first time, to explore alternate sites to downtown's Tropicana Field.

Foster said the amended agreement would permit the Rays to consider a stadium anywhere in St. Petersburg and the "greater Gateway area," which would include land outside city limits.

Derby Lane and Pinellas County's Airco Golf Course, which have been mentioned as possible sites, are in the Gateway area and not in St. Petersburg. Foster specifically mentioned them as locations that could be considered if the changes are accepted by the City Council and the Rays.

As of Monday, the proposed changes were still being drafted and weren't available.

The current contract between the city and the club requires the Rays to play at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season. Last month, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said he wanted to leave the Trop before then. He said he'd consider keeping the club in Tampa Bay only if he could look at all possible sites in the region, including those in Tampa and Hillsborough County.

Foster said the changes he's proposing won't allow the club to cross the bay or skip its contractual obligations. He had expected to send the amended contract to the Rays on Monday, but City Attorney John Wolfe was out on personal leave and wasn't expected to return until today.

Once Wolfe completes the changes, Foster said he would send them to Sternberg.

"I pray they are open to this because if they aren't, the conversation goes in a different direction," Foster said.

Michael Kalt, the Rays senior vice president of development and business affairs, declined to comment.

Foster said after getting the amended agreement back from Sternberg — along with any changes the Rays owner might include — he'd review it one more time and send it to City Council for its approval.

Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran said she hadn't seen the changes and was reluctant to comment. She said she had reservations about allowing the Rays to consider sites outside the city.

"I'd certainly not have a problem with anything in the city limits," Curran said. "My goal is to keep them in St. Pete."

Keeping the Rays at Tropicana Field is the preferred option for council member Jim Kennedy, who said it has the best infrastructure for any site now being considered. But he said he'd consider allowing the Rays to look outside the city at properties such as Derby Lane if it could later be annexed.

"Putting annexation into that equation makes it more positive," Kennedy said.

Pinellas County officials endorsed Foster's move.

"I think that's very good news," said County Administrator Bob LaSala. "It creates flexibility, it creates opportunity not only for the Rays but the city of St. Petersburg."

County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel called Foster's move "very positive." She said she assumed he would do it after recently discussing the next step with him.

"I believe the city of St. Petersburg is being very open-minded about the future of the Rays and keeping the team in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County," Seel said.

She downplayed any fight over annexation.

"Since the county will more than likely own the stadium and it's off the tax rolls anyway, it's kind of a moot point," said Seel, adding that it may be more economical to have it in the city and use municipal water and sewer lines, since cities can place surcharges on utility customers.

The response on the other side of the bay is uncertain. Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who has said a regional dialogue on the Rays can't take place unless St. Petersburg frees other governments to talk with the club, didn't return phone calls. Neither did Stuart Rogel, the CEO and president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional marketing organization that recently offered to mediate between the Rays, St. Petersburg and anyone else who wants to keep the team in the bay area.

Until now, the city had taken a hard line on its contract, threatening to sue other parties that approached the Rays with stadium offers. Foster said his shift in strategy was made in part to gain better control of the negotiations from groups and individuals he feels are nearly interfering. He said he was concerned last week when he was sent the minutes from the February meeting of the Tampa Downtown Partnership at which the board passed a motion to support "an effort to encourage the Rays baseball team to build a stadium in downtown Tampa."

Foster also didn't appreciate a Pinellas Park flea market mogul, Hardy Huntley, offering 185 acres for the Rays.

"They're a lot of nonparties who are getting close to interfering with our agreement," Foster said. "I'm done with interference with nonparties to the agreement. We're either going to do this right or we're going to sit down and shut up until 2027."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com (727) 893-8037.

Foster open to a Rays stadium in Pinellas outside city limits 07/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 9:16am]
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