ST. PETERSBURG — Construction of a new baseball stadium should begin by 2017, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce advised Thursday, but only if the Tampa Bay Rays agree to stay within city limits.
Furthermore, if the team wants to leave downtown for a site closer to Tampa, the Rays should eventually bring spring training back from Charlotte County.
That's the gist of a letter the chamber sent Thursday to St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. It was designed to "kick start'' negotiations between the city and Rays, said chamber president John Long.
"We felt that a vacuum was beginning," Long said. "We wanted to make sure, as a strong business organization, to remind our good friends (the team and the city) that a discussion needs to take place and it needs to take place now.''
Foster embraced the chamber's recommendations Thursday.
"Finally, a group has fully vetted the downtown location and come up with a proposal worthy of exploration and comment," he said. "This one intrigues me."
Foster said he was ready to meet with the Rays, but "if we are going to sit down and talk about future facilities, I need to hear that they are committed. Otherwise it's an exercise in futility."
Rays vice president Michael Kalt declined to comment Thursday, which has been the team's public position since a push for a downtown waterfront stadium fizzled two years ago.
However, the team has talked with the chamber.
Chamber chairman Sid Morgan recently met with Rays president Matt Silverman, Long said. Morgan, a Humana executive, could not be reached Thursday.
The Rays have indicated for several years that the Trop is outmoded and cannot produce enough revenue to sustain a successful franchise.
That was recently seconded by a group of business and civic leaders called the ABC Coalition, who warned that the Tampa Bay area risks losing the team if movement toward a new stadium does not begin as soon the economy improves.
Now the St. Petersburg chamber has weighed in.
The Rays bring millions of dollars a year into local coffers, the chamber concluded. Baseball also unites the community, Long said.
"You're going up in an elevator and somebody standing there you don't even know turns around to you and says, 'What do you think about that closer the Rays have?' Those are the types of things that start building community spirit and that businesses looking to move into your community or expand in your community want.''
The chamber's recommendations, which presume that the economy will improve, call for a retractable roof stadium, with the Rays and government bodies sharing construction costs.
The Trop's 85 acres should be redeveloped, whether or not the actual stadium footprint ends up there, the chamber says.
The ABC Coalition considered Tampa as a centrally located alternative, but the chamber nixed that idea. In fact, the chamber recommended against any stadium site outside downtown unless "the Rays commit to return Spring Training to downtown St. Petersburg.''
That idea brought polite resistance from Assistant Charlotte County Administrator Kelly Shoemaker. Just two years ago, about $20 million in public money lured the Rays to train there in a renovated stadium.
"We are very happy to be their hosts during spring training,'' Shoemaker said. "We have an agreement for 20 years and we hope that will continue for some time.''
Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.