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Rays owner, St. Pete in stadium stalemate

ST. PETERSBURG

Setting up a legal and political standoff that could take years to resolve, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg finally made it clear Monday that he wants to leave downtown St. Petersburg and explore new stadium sites on both sides of the bay.

The Rays will not stay in Tropicana Field through the end of their contract in 2027, Sternberg said. Nor will he negotiate on any new stadium site in St. Petersburg unless he can simultaneously pursue Hillsborough locations.

"We will consider any potential ballpark site in Tampa Bay,'' Sternberg said in a news conference, "but only as part of a process that considers every ballpark site in Tampa Bay.''

The Trop contract forbids the Rays from talking to other cities or landowners about moving the team, and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster reiterated that restriction Monday.

"We won't entertain any discussion of having the stadium outside of the city," Foster said. "My taxpayers have committed hundreds of millions of dollars, they won't be brushed aside."

Earlier in the day, Sternberg briefed Foster at City Hall, and both men described the encounter as cordial.

But the Rays' position — publicly articulated for the first time in two years — shows that Tampa Bay's sometimes contentious, sometimes joyous history with major league baseball has entered a thorny new phase.

Sternberg's frankness prompted swift and lively reaction around the bay. Though his "news conference'' lasted only a few minutes and he took no questions, politicians and fans on their lunch hour watched eagerly on television as he made his case.

Hillsborough officials, until now on the sidelines of stadium issues, suddenly found themselves walking a delicate line.

"It's important for us to exhaust all the Pinellas options first because we want to be partners,'' Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said. "Now if those options are exhausted, then I think we would open the door because we want to keep the Rays."

After his news conference, Sternberg moved on to a wide-ranging interview with St. Petersburg Times editors and reporters, discussing details like costs, why the team became so disenchanted with downtown St. Petersburg and long-standing regional rivalries.

"We would like the team and baseball to be the driving force making it one Tampa Bay,'' Sternberg said.

• • •

St. Petersburg City Council members, who would like to keep the team at the Trop as long as possible, were not so warm toward regional cooperation. To them, that just means moving the team out of St. Petersburg.

Several said they might consider a more centrally located stadium in the Pinellas Gateway area, but balked at the Rays talking to others outside St. Petersburg.

"It's like telling my wife that I want to see other women," said Wengay Newton. "I'd tell her I want to stay married, I just want to see what my options are."

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan lauded the notion of a "comprehensive'' stadium site search but without public money.

Hillsborough has already committed part of its hotel tax, plus sales taxes, to existing sports arenas. That money is largely pledged through 2035 and the county soon faces a referendum on more sales tax for light rail and other public transportation.

"I think wherever the next stadium is built, it will have to be driven by the private sector and the Rays organization,'' Hagan said.

At least two investment groups reportedly are seeking options on downtown Tampa land for stadium sites, and former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco is touting the State Fairgrounds.

But before the private sector or any Hillsborough officials can talk to the Rays, Hagan said, St. Petersburg must give its okay.

"Unless we have that regional community discussion, I think we're looking at the distinct possibility of the Charlotte Rays or the Las Vegas Rays.''

• • •

Debate over a new stadium has simmered since late 2007, when the Rays announced they wanted to replace the Trop with a new venue on St. Petersburg's waterfront, covered by a sail.

When that plan wilted under widespread opposition, a business group called the ABC Coalition studied the issue for 18 months and recommended in January that negotiations begin toward building a new stadium in Gateway, West Tampa or downtown Tampa.

St. Petersburg officials were irate at the mention of possible Hillsborough sites. They competed with Tampa in the 1980s and '90s to land baseball in the first place and spend about $6 million a year to pay off the Trop bonds.

Through it all, the Rays tried to lay low, declining comment — until Monday.

Stadium talk "was taking on a life of its own,'' Sternberg said. "Everybody had a proposal. We needed to say something.''

• • •

In his interview with the Times, Sternberg and other Rays executives gave a detailed glimpse into the team's thinking over the last few years.

When his ownership bought the team in 2005, Sternberg said, they thought that they could kick start attendance by building a winner.

"People said if you win, they will come,'' Sternberg said. "Well why aren't they here?"

The Rays worked on the waterfront plan for two years, but were stunned at the lack of business and political support.

"We expected opposition,'' he said, "but that there was zero passion for it was an eye-opener for me. We thought we had the perfect plan.''

Their disillusionment with the Trop and downtown St. Petersburg has since evolved.

"There was no one 'Aha!' moment,'' he said, but a variety of factors, including continued lackluster attendance as the team progressed from the worst record in baseball to the best.

The economy is bad, he acknowledged, but other baseball cities are hurting as well.

Tickets are cheap, the team spends more on promotions than any other team, almost one quarter of their games are against the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox "and there's no bump,'' Sternberg said.

"This year, it is extraordinarily clear we have emptied our tanks'' and the team is 23rd in attendance.

Rays vice president Michael Kalt estimated that a retractable roof stadium would cost between $500 million and $600 million, depending on design and infrastructure. The Rays' share will depend on the site and negotiations, Sternberg said.

"I know it's going to cost us money. I know it's not going to be $50 million and it's not going to be $300 million. It will be somewhere in between.''

If a stadium like the Trop were in downtown Tampa, closer to more fans and business executives, it might draw another 4,000 to 5,000 fans a game, Kalt estimated. But build a new stadium in downtown Tampa and that number jumps to 7,000 to 8,000 fans a game.

Teams with average attendance (about 30,000 a game last season) can afford annual payrolls from $70 million to $100 million, Sternberg said.

The Rays, who drew 23,000 fans a game last season, figure they can't go higher than $60 million, even in a good year, he said. Without a new stadium, he worries about "a downward spiral'' as favored players move to higher paying teams.

"It's not going to be exciting as much. People are going to show up less,'' he said. "I don't think the city is going to be happy with us, and the fans will be unhappy with us if there is not a plan in place''

Several times, Sternberg referenced decades-old rivalries between St. Petersburg and Tampa that stemmed from the original pursuit of a team. St. Petersburg pre-empted that decision by building the dome with no team in sight.

Regional differences "run deep, but as the generations change, people are going to grow up who don't remember the 1980s, they will just know that there's a ballpark.''

Five other cities without baseball would make better markets, he said, without naming them, but the team is committed to staying in Tampa Bay.

"We are here and we have a fan base here. And because it's not my only source of income, and I want to do the right thing. We should be able to make it work here.''

But that commitment may have limits. "If we get to 2020 with no plan'' for a stadium, he said, "there is no reason for us to be here.''

Times staff writers Michael Van Sickler, Bill Varian and Adam Smith contributed to this report.

Rays owner, St. Pete in stadium stalemate 06/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 22, 2010 9:15am]
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