ST. PETERSBURG — The leader of a coalition group pressing for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays said today that it was time for the club to approach the city of St. Petersburg about opening up negotiations on its lease agreement at Tropicana Field.
"(The city) needs to encourage dialogue with the Rays," said ABC Coalition member Craig Sher before more than 100 people at a local political luncheon at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. "But it's the Rays turn to stand up and tell (the city) what they want."
That line drew applause and many heads craned to look at the expressions of five members of the City Council, who sat stone-faced at a back table. It was the first time a majority of the council heard the presentation. Heads also turned toward the opposite end of the ballroom, where Michael Kalt, the only Rays executive in attendance, was sitting.
The city has refused to listen to the ABC report. Mayor Bill Foster, who has yet to hear it and was not in attendance, has said the group strayed from its mission in recommending other stadium locations other than downtown St. Petersburg. The Tropicana lease with the Rays doesn't expire until 2027, and city officials have threatened lawsuits against any group that lures the club from its commitment.
Shunned by the city, Sher has given the report to other groups, including the Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions. He has said it would be a "death sentence" for major league baseball in Tampa Bay if city officials try to keep the Rays at the Tropicana for that long. He said the stadium was outdated when it was built in the 1980s, and said the coalition found only three locations — the Gateway area, Westshore, and downtown Tampa — viable for major league baseball.
Until today, however, Sher's strategy was clearly applying pressure on city officials. But he shifted a bit by saying it was up to the Rays to start the conversation with the city about what they wanted.
After the Tiger Bay luncheon, the Rays' Kalt brushed off Sher's advice that the club approach the city now.
"The season has just started," said Kalt, the team's senior vice president of development and business affairs. "We're focused on the season right now and having a successful 2010."
City council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Bill Dudley, Steve Kornell, and Herb Polson, heard Sher's speech, during which he made light of the city's refusal to formally hear his presentation.
"I'm gratified that five members of the city council are here," Sher said, opening up his speech. "I'm pretty sure they're not here to give me the key to the city."
Another time, when asked if a downtown waterfront stadium could work, Sher replied: "It may be on the waterfront, it just won't be St. Petersburg's waterfront."
Curran, the chair of the council, said Sher's tone was offensive.
"I was surprised that he was flippant throughout," Curran said. "We really need to work together on this. The question needs to be how do we keep the Rays in St. Petersburg."