The Tampa Bay Rays suspended their all-out push for a waterfront stadium Wednesday as community leaders vowed to help the team find the best site for a new ballpark and money to build it. The Rays acknowledged that complex negotiations over stadium construction, redevelopment of Tropicana Field, parking and other issues would be difficult to resolve in time for a November referendum. "The tight timetable and looming November referendum was a constant shadow, a cloud that was looming over the process," said Rays president Matt Silverman. "There wasn't broad support for the time period we brought forward."
The downtown waterfront location will still be considered along with other sites. No time frame for a new stadium or a possible referendum was set.
Team officials said they will let a group of community, city and county leaders lead the search for a new stadium. Progress Energy CEO Jeff Lyash will head the group.
On the table will be the location, funding and design of a new ballpark, said Mayor Rick Baker.
Missing from Wednesday's discussions: keeping Tropicana Field as the Rays' long-term home. The mayor said he is convinced the team needs a new stadium.
In recent months, opponents of the waterfront location suggested alternatives such as the county's old Toytown landfill, Derby Lane's property and a Tropicana Field glitzed up with shops, restaurants and lofts. All those sites fall within St. Petersburg city limits.
But the Rays, Baker and others who broke the news Wednesday studiously avoided speculating about where a new stadium might go.
Lyash refused to rule out any location.
"I'd be very reluctant to constrain that or enforce limits right now,'' he said, though he later noted that the Rays are a "St. Petersburg-based team and a Pinellas County team and there's a weight that comes with that.''
Baker, who said he prefers the Trop site or some other downtown location, was open to the Gateway area, but no farther. "I would not support a stadium outside St. Petersburg.''
Rays vice president Michael Kalt indicated the team is open to a midcounty site. "A tradeoff might come between an iconic location on the waterfront and being 15 minutes closer to the center of the region,'' he said.
Deal hatched Sunday
The Rays' decision to postpone the stadium vote solidified during a Sunday meeting at Tropicana Field between Baker and Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg.
Sternberg, in town for the first time in more than a month, told Baker that team officials would ask to delay a referendum.
The two then talked about the future, and the need to find common ground.
"They informed me where they wanted to go," Baker said.
The two then floated the idea of a broad community coalition to lead a search for alternatives.
On Monday, Baker asked Lyash to lead the group while Silverman informed Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.
"I told him it was a great idea," Welch said Wednesday. "This thing was not going in a direction that was going to be successful for the Rays."
On Tuesday, Welch and others told the St. Petersburg Times about the shift without offering details. On Wednesday, the team and city made it official at an afternoon news conference.
Lyash has not yet named members to his group but said he expected them to come from myriad backgrounds around the Tampa Bay area. He said he hopes to make considerable progress in a year to 18 months.
The group will have a broad scope to examine potential sites but will also look at ways to improve the relationship between the Rays and the community. Its role will be advisory.
"The Rays have stepped up their game," Lyash said. "We have to step up our game."
Among other things, Silverman said to be competitive the Rays need local corporations to buy a lot more season tickets.
Wednesday's announcement marked the first time community leaders presented such a unified front since the Rays announced their plans in November.
For the first time, Baker said that the team needed a new stadium to remain viable in the long run.
He was flanked by city officials, members of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, Rays officials and Barbara Heck, the president of St. Petersburg's Council of Neighborhood Associations.
The Rays characterized it as a watershed moment.
"We're excited about passing the torch to the community," Silverman said. "We're open to all possibilities."
City and county leaders admitted the change of course was overdue.
County leaders said the Rays probably could not get support from the county's Tourism Development Council for extending a bed tax that was critical to their financing plan.
Neither, admitted the city, was it likely that St. Petersburg voters would support the team's waterfront ballpark proposal in a November referendum.
A June St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll found 68 percent of St. Petersburg residents opposed the Rays' waterfront plan.
"Now the work starts, the community can roll up its selves and find a location for a new stadium complex that will benefit all residents of Pinellas County," said former City Council member Bill Foster.
New questions raised
Expanding the stadium discussion past the waterfront creates new questions for city and team officials.
While the waterfront proposal required a referendum, any site away from the waterfront site would not.
Baker said he had not decided whether he would seek a referendum for any new ballpark. That decision will likely be left to the city's next mayor and City Council. Baker's term expires in January 2010. Scuttling the November referendum means the November 2009 city elections could be dominated by the question of a new ballpark.
Also to be considered is the short-term future of Al Lang Field, the former spring training home of the Rays. Opponents of the Rays' stadium plan want the land turned into a park, which would eliminate the site for the Rays.
For now Baker said he envisioned keeping the site as it is, with the hope of attracting college or amateur baseball tournaments.
Times staff writers Marc Topkin, Cristina Silva and Will Van Sant contributed to this report.