Mayor Bill Foster: I have a plan to keep Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg

The Rays’ contract to play at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg runs through 2027, but the team wants to be freed from contract restrictions to explore stadium possibilities in Hillsborough.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

The Rays’ contract to play at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg runs through 2027, but the team wants to be freed from contract restrictions to explore stadium possibilities in Hillsborough.

ST. PETERSBURG — With City Council members pressing for more information about the city's dealings with the Tampa Bay Rays, Mayor Bill Foster revealed Thursday he is working to break the stadium stalemate but refused to give specifics.

Foster's comments came at the end of a heated council meeting about the team's desire to leave Tropicana Field. He told council members that he has a detailed plan "to ensure the Rays are successful here in St. Petersburg.''

But he later said his words should not be taken to mean that a new stadium will necessarily be built. One aspect covers a contingency if the team leaves St. Petersburg, he said.

While Foster said he had discussed the plan privately with individual council members, several said they were in the dark.

"He's got something, but he won't say what,'' said Jeff Danner.

"I have no idea,'' said Herb Polson, "but I would like to know.''

"I haven't heard anything about it," Karl Nurse said. "Maybe the mayor really does have a secret plan."

Council members Steve Kornell, Wengay Newton and Leslie Curran also said Foster had not discussed any detailed plan with them.

After the mayor's surprise announcement, the council voted 6-2 to hold a workshop to get more information.

"We need to be more included in this process,'' said Danner. "There are questions we need to know as we go through this process. We have budgets and vacant houses, but everywhere I go, the minute the presentation is over, I'm asked about what's going to happen with the Rays. I'd like to give them an answer.''

Curran prompted Thursday's discussion by asking city administrators for an update on any "plans/options that may exist to break the current stalemate."

The Rays contract to play at the Trop runs through 2027. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg has said it is not an economically viable venue. But he has refused to talk about a replacement in St. Petersburg unless the city frees him from contract restrictions so he can explore stadium possibilities in Hillsborough County as well.

Foster nixed that idea, saying he will only discuss locations in St. Petersburg or on abutting Pinellas County land.

Curran pushed for a stronger council role in breaking the deadlock Thursday, including a public discussion of the city's options.

"If the Rays want to leave, they are going to leave. But I don't want it to be due to a lack of effort by the city,'' she said. "And what I am seeing so far is a lack of effort.''

No public body is going to finance a new stadium anytime soon, she said. "But if anything comes out of this (discussion), hopefully it is a direct link with the Rays, putting them on notice that we do want to talk.''

Several council members initially seemed reluctant to push the issue.

The Rays are still vying for a playoff spot, said Karl Nurse. Maybe the city's marketing department should help the team sell tickets. But as for the stadium "elephant in the room,'' he said, "we can have conversations'' after the season.

Polson said any stadium discussions would seem like "a disconnect at a time when people are struggling to keep their jobs and homes.''

Council chair James Kennedy said strategic discussions should be between city administrators and individual council members, not in public meetings.

"I am very content with the communication with the administration,'' Kennedy said. "If the Rays are interested in having discussions they should call the mayor.''

Foster concurred that public meetings make for an awkward forum.

"We can't play this poker hand in the sunshine, without weakening our position,'' he said. "When the time comes, when they are ready to come to the table, it will be publicly discussed and be in the sunshine. We can't do anything to weaken our position, which is why I'm willing to come to you individually.''

Several minutes later he revealed that he wasn't just standing by passively, waiting for the Rays to approach him.

"They can come to me. There is not one meeting they have asked for where I didn't run down and try to meet with them,'' Foster said. "As far as having a detailed plan for keeping the Rays in St. Petersburg, I have that plan," which he said he had previously discussed with individual council members.

"What plan?'' Curran asked. "Marketing?''

"No,'' Foster said, "something we have discussed in the past.''

With that surprise, some council members began to push harder for more information.

"I've never heard a detailed plan,'' said Steve Kornell. The council should not be in a position where administrators "plop'' down a plan two weeks before a council vote.

"I don't think the public will like that,'' Kornell said. "I'd sure like to get a briefing on a detailed plan.''

Kennedy — who noted earlier that the city faces more pressing issues like EMS services — tried to end the discussion and shift to a new topic.

But Curran quickly sought a vote on whether the council should hold a workshop on the Rays and keep talking. All but Kennedy and Bill Dudley agreed.

Foster said after the meeting that council members didn't recall discussions about his ideas because they were caught up on the semantics of the word "plan."

As is their custom, the Rays declined to comment through a spokesman.

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at 727-893-8442 or nohlgren@sptimes.com.

Mayor Bill Foster: I have a plan to keep Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg 08/19/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 19, 2011 10:03am]

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