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Romano: You can fret, you can rejoice or you can get used to baseball in St. Petersburg

Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg talks with reporters before the start of the game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte on Thursday. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]

Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg talks with reporters before the start of the game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte on Thursday. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]

For 10 years, we have crept. You may even say plodded.

The search for a new baseball stadium in Tampa Bay has been nothing if not deliberate and, on most days, stealthy. Speculation has run up the score on confirmation almost every step of the way.

And then, suddenly, BOOM!

The headline says the Rays' top five choices for stadium sites have all been eliminated. If this isn't game-changing, it's at least significant.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Stu Sternberg says top choices for Rays news stadium are unavailable

So what's the proper reaction to owner Stuart Sternberg's revelation that three prime sites in Tampa and two in St. Petersburg have been taken off the board? That depends on your point of view.

1. This is terrible.

For those who love the Rays, this can't possibly be good news. The one message that has never changed from Rays ownership is that, because of this market's challenges, any new stadium has to be built on a near-perfect site. So how many "perfect'' sites can possibly remain?

2. This is wonderful.

If you belong to the crowd who does not believe a Major League Baseball stadium is a good community investment, then you're already preparing different variations of a "good riddance'' rant and shouting that this was all part of the Rays-to-Montreal conspiracy.

3. This is inevitable.

If you're a realist, you understand that this was never going to be a pretty process. It involves too much money, too many government layers and far too many variables when it comes to finding suitable land in a market that is close to being built-out.

So where do we go from here?

RELATED COVERAGE: Hillsborough Commissioner takes shot across bow of Rays owners as stadium search drags

If I were a betting man, I would say about a few hundred yards to the east of the current Tropicana Field site. The Trop site has always been the most accessible path to a new stadium, even if it was never the most desirable for either the Rays or a lot of fans in North Pinellas and Hillsborough.

The site information confirmed by Sternberg to Tampa Bay Times reporter Marc Topkin on Thursday was intriguing for a lot of reasons, but mostly for this:

The Rays still have genuine interest in St. Petersburg's downtown area. Granted the Al Lang and Albert Whitted sites are both much more attractive than Tropicana because of the potential waterfront views, but this means the team has not totally soured on baseball in St. Pete.

The comments from Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan may have been even more intriguing.

Hagan told the Times' Steve Contorno that he had concerns about the team's "ability to have a significant investment'' in the ballpark.

This could simply mean that the Rays are not willing and/or able to make a sizable contribution to the building of a stadium. It might mean Tampa and Hillsborough County officials recognize it will be difficult to persuade taxpayers to pony up as much money as the Rays expected.

It might mean Hagan, as the point man for the Hillsborough effort, is already anticipating a Rays return to St. Petersburg, and he's beginning to assign blame ahead of time. It has not gone unnoticed that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has never made the Rays a top priority, which could be construed as a shrewd politician recognizing this deal was going to be difficult to pull off.

"I would not have made the deal allowing them to look around the region if I didn't have complete confidence in St. Petersburg and the opportunity that the Trop site presents them,'' St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said. "They may have had ideas in their head of other locations that might seem to be a better fit, but once you starting getting into the details of the investments involved, you discover those other sites are not so great, for whatever reasons might exist there.

"I think that's exactly what's happened.''

The major hurdle that must be cleared for the Trop site?

What's the cost, and who is picking up the tab?

For the Rays, this has always been a mathematics question. If they can boost their revenues $15 million a year in a downtown Tampa location, then they would invest a certain amount in construction. If a new stadium on the Trop site only boosts their revenues $5 million a year, then one might assume their investment would not be as high.

The difference at the Trop site is there is an abundance of property that does not have to be purchased, and the Rays currently hold the development rights through their stadium use agreement.

Those rights could go a long way toward deferring the team's costs, and they would allow the Rays to be partners in whatever development goes up around the stadium.

This doesn't mean a site in downtown Tampa won't suddenly become available at a better asking price, but the odds seem a lot less likely than a week ago.

What's now clear is that St. Pete is still a viable location, and that Hillsborough voices are less optimistic than in the past. All of which makes the Trop site seem a lot more attractive today.

Romano: You can fret, you can rejoice or you can get used to baseball in St. Petersburg 03/24/17 [Last modified: Friday, March 24, 2017 12:24pm]
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