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Rays make new stadium pitch to council chairman

ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay Rays president Matt Silverman said Thursday the team would agree to examine a stadium proposal in mid-Pinellas County for a set amount of time — if the Rays could then explore sites in Hillsborough County for a set amount of time.

After the Rays briefed the Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday about attendance issues at Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Karl Nurse suggested the team could end a deadlock with the city by exploring developer Darryl LeClair's detailed stadium proposal at Carillon Business Park.

Silverman said Thursday that he had talked to Nurse several times since the meeting and proposed that the team first consider Carillon before looking in Hillsborough.

"I'm open to finding a way to get this conversation started," said Nurse, who views this as a new twist in the lengthy stalemate. "We have to find a way to get off this."

Late Thursday, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said he did not know about Silverman's pitch to Nurse. Foster declined to comment at length until learning more details.

"This is all new to me," he said.

The news of the offer comes amid renewed efforts by public officials on both sides of Tampa Bay to sustain a regional conversation about the future of Major League Baseball in the region.

Before the meeting in Pinellas, the Rays met last week with Hills­borough County officials. Commissioner Ken Hagan is now proposing a meeting with government and business leaders from around the region to ensure the team stays here.

While Hagan believes Hillsborough is the best site for a stadium, he likes that the Rays are willing to consider Carillon first — if they can then look in Hillsborough.

"Outstanding. Anything that can be accomplished that can break this logjam is constructive," he said.

"At the end of the day, if the ideal spot is in Pinellas County, I'm thrilled because it means the Rays remain in our region."

It's possible that little will come from this latest proposal.

The Rays have previously asked for permission to canvass stadium locations around the bay area.

After LeClair's firm, CityScape, unveiled its Carillon plan, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg asked Foster to amend the team's lease so it could look in Pinellas and Hillsborough.

Sternberg even said he would first call LeClair.

Foster answered with a resounding no.

The difference between the October offer and the one made to Nurse includes the idea that the Rays would devote a period of time to study the Carillon proposal — though Silverman did not provide a specific time frame.

He has remained steadfast in not letting the Rays look at sites outside mid-Pinellas. The Rays' contract obligates them to play at the Trop through 2027.

Foster said he would be interested in the regional discussion if it focused on finding ways to boost attendance at the Trop.

While acknowledging that a meeting could help find a solution, he said his first priority is to protect city taxpayers.

"County commissioners can talk regionalism all they want," Foster said.

Sternberg told the Hillsborough commissioners last week that Major League Baseball "no longer believes in the Tampa Bay area'' and suggested that fellow owners might step in at some point and eliminate the team.

Late Thursday, Hagan said he fears that.

He plans to contact Pinellas commissioners and the Tampa Bay Partnership to further the regional dialogue.

He'd first check with county lawyers and the Rays to determine what could be discussed without violating the team's deal with St. Petersburg.

Hagan knows Foster is the key to making the talks happen.

"We need to see whether there's going to be any progress with Mr. Foster and the Rays about allowing a discussion," Hagan said. "There's no question that the time we have is narrowing."

LeClair didn't think that Silverman's offer broke the stalemate since the team already made a similar pitch in October. Still, LeClair would like to pitch the plan to the Rays.

"We would love to have that opportunity, but until the city affords us that opportunity, there is not a lot that CityScape or I can do," he said. "It's kind of that same vicious circle.''

Nurse is optimistic.

He said letting the Rays explore Carillon and then sites in Hillsborough opens possibilities to explore the best way to travel to a new stadium in the region. The Rays would absorb the costs of examining the options, he said.

Nurse then speculated that mass transit might creep into the discussion.

"Looking at one place begins the broader conversation," he said. "The door is cracked open."

Times staff writers Bill Varian, Stephen Nohlgren and John Romano contributed to this report. Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

Rays make new stadium pitch to council chairman 01/31/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 11:17pm]
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