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In a first, Tampa and St. Petersburg mayors, business leaders discuss Tampa Bay Rays

TAMPA — The mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa sat down Tuesday with top business leaders from both cities for an unprecedented meeting focused on one question.

How can the region, especially its business community, better support the Tampa Bay Rays?

"There's no game plan as of yet, because this was the first conversation," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said afterward.

But both politicians and business leaders recognize "that we've got to be all in," Buckhorn said, "specifically the business community, because they're the ones who will drive the ticket sales."

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster organized the meeting, which took place at the Tampa offices of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a nonprofit regional marketing and economic development organization.

Along with the mayors, the discussion drew Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce president Bob Rohrlack, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce president Chris Steinocher, St. Petersburg chamber chairman David Punzak, Tampa Bay Partnership president Stuart Rogel and partnership chairman Vinny Dolan, the chief executive of Progress Energy Florida.

"It was just exciting to see everybody together," Steinocher said. "The magic to getting anything done in this region is getting everybody in the room."

To be sure, there have been — and continue to be — other private sector initiatives focused on the Rays. A business advocacy group known as the Clutch Hitters has promoted fan attendance and lobbied for talks on a stadium location.

And both chambers have created a separate effort, the Baseball Stadium Financing Caucus, to study possible stadium financing scenarios without looking at particular sites. That group is not expected to issue its report before late June.

Tuesday's conversation, however, was not about whether to build a stadium — something the Rays say they need — or where in Tampa Bay the team should play in the long run.

"Irrespective of any other discussion, the most important discussion is that the Rays are financially healthy, that they're successful, that they've got a great team coming up in 2012 and we need to support them," Buckhorn said.

The two-hour conversation didn't have a formal agenda but was focused largely on building relationships.

"This was much more of an informal roundtable discussion, and it didn't take any effort for everybody to nod that, 'Yes, this is an important issue to the area and the group that I serve,' " Rohrlack said.

Among other things, the chamber presidents talked about ways to expand their annual springtime Rays luncheons to bring in more people, generate awareness of the franchise's economic impact and fuel interest in ticket sales. One idea: Create some cross-pollination by having the Tampa mayor to the St. Petersburg lunch and vice versa.

"I'm always happy to have as many people as we can get to our event," Rohrlack said. "It's going to be good to have the back-and-forth going on."

Without going into details, Foster and Buckhorn said they expect the business groups to talk to their members about the issue and the importance of the team to the region.

In the meantime, Foster said he planned to try to brief Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg, possibly Tuesday evening, and to update his council soon.

"It went very well," said Foster, who had told the Rays and his council that he would reach out to Tampa and the business community. "I think the business community has a strategy, so I intend to have a discussion with the principals of the Tampa Bay Rays to see where we can go from here to make sure they know how much this region supports their endeavors in Major League Baseball."

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com, (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

In a first, Tampa and St. Petersburg mayors, business leaders discuss Tampa Bay Rays 02/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 8:08am]
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