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Hillsborough commissioners to Tampa Bay Rays: Let's talk

TAMPA — A divided Hillsborough County Commission voted Thursday to invite the Tampa Bay Rays to sit down for a discussion about the team's future in the region.

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan noted repeatedly that it has been years since the Rays first indicated that the team cannot stay at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg for the duration of its lease.

In that time, Hagan said, there has been no meaningful movement to develop a plan for keeping the Rays in the region long term. As part of his proposal, Hagan put the onus on the team to step up and tell the public what it desires.

"We need to know what they want," he said. "The first pitch, if you will, is strictly a fact-finding mission. If the Rays don't want to be here, the discussion is moot."

Hagan said he wants the presentation to take place in public some time after the end of the baseball season, joking that he hopes it takes a while to schedule because that would mean the team makes a long playoff run.

The team issued a brief statement Thursday.

"Since 2008, we have suggested regional dialogue to ensure the successful future of major league baseball in the Tampa Bay region," Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "We greatly appreciate the Hillsborough County Commission's action today and look forward to the progress which this regional discussion can bring."

Earlier Thursday, some commissioners worried that the request to meet with the Rays could be seen as a hostile move by Hillsborough at a time when local government and community leaders have been advocating greater regional cooperation.

They debated whether the county should reach out to other government and business leaders in the region first to more broadly coordinate a community dialogue.

"I just think this first step is going to put us very adversarial with Pinellas," Commissioner Sandra Murman said. "How would we feel if Pinellas County commissioners came over here and started talking to the Bucs if we were having a problem with the Bucs?"

When asked for his reaction to Hillsborough's vote, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster shook his head and said: "Let's see how it works out for them."

The Rays have a contract that obligates the team to play at Tropicana Field until 2027. St. Petersburg officials have threatened to sue anyone who interferes with the team fulfilling its obligation.

During Hillsborough's meeting, Hagan emphasized that he is only seeking a broad presentation from the Rays about their long-term plans and goals. He said that if the Rays accept the invitation, the next step should be to gather regional leaders to discuss how to help the Rays meet those goals.

Thursday's vote was 5-2, with Murman ultimately siding with the majority. Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Kevin Beckner voted in opposition.

Higginbotham said he was concerned about creating friction among local governments. Beckner voted against Hagan's proposal because he had unsuccessfully sought a pledge that the chairman would not have any discussions with third parties who might seek to build a new stadium in Hillsborough County.

Beckner said after the meeting that it would be particularly damaging to relationships if Hills- borough officials publicly speak in favor of finding a regional solution while secretly plotting to lure the team across the bay.

"I absolutely support dialogue to ensure we can keep the Tampa Bay Rays in the region," Beckner said. "My concern is injuring the relationship and integrity we have with our regional partners."

Hagan told his colleagues that ultimately he hopes to be the county's liaison to the Rays and any other parties if the team decides to explore its options away from Tropicana Field.

Robert Brazel, a managing attorney in the litigation division of the Hillsborough County attorney's office, issued a legal opinion earlier this week saying that the team is bound by its contract with St. Petersburg. But Hillsborough County isn't a party to the agreement, Brazel noted, clearing the way for commissioners to talk to the team.

On Thursday, Brazel reiterated his position that any meeting with the Rays should mostly involve listening to what the team has to say. Hagan said he thinks commissioners can ask about details, such as whether the team wants a retractable- or open-roof stadium, but not specific street sites or financing options to pay for construction.

"This would be a conversation with the Rays about what they want to do," Brazel said.

Times staff writers Mark Puente and Marc Topkin contributed to this report.

Hillsborough commissioners to Tampa Bay Rays: Let's talk 08/02/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 2, 2012 11:33pm]
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