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St. Petersburg City Council pleased to finally have say on Rays issues

ST. PETERSBURG — For two months, St. Petersburg City Council members have squirmed with mounting frustration that a stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays seemed to leave them on the sidelines while Mayor Bill Foster called the shots.

At one meeting, Foster said he had a detailed plan to keep the Rays in town but couldn't discuss it. The council asked for another meeting to learn more, but he skipped most of it. Meanwhile, the city attorney warned that too much Rays talk could undermine the city's contractual rights.

But those frustrations dissipated quickly Thursday as council members finally had some say and came away smiling.

For two hours, they chipped in ideas for boosting attendance. They called for more business and government cooperation throughout the region. And they urged Foster to improve his often icy relations with the team.

"There was more energy from this meeting,'' said council member Leslie Curran, who has pushed for more discussion after Foster implied in August that the council would rather leave baseball business to him.

"Today our constituents can see that we are involved,'' Curran said.

What the council did not address was the fundamental stalemate between landlord and tenant: The Rays say they cannot afford to play at the Trop through 2027, when their contract ends.

Foster will discuss possibilities for a new stadium — but only within St. Petersburg or on adjacent, annexable land.

Principal Rays owner Stuart Sternberg refuses to discuss St. Petersburg locations unless he can explore options in Hillsborough County as well.

Foster and Sternberg may soon get a chance to review their deadlock. At a recent playoff game, Foster said, they agreed to meet after the World Series.

"I don't necessarily need to go to New York … but I will if you authorize it,'' Foster told the council, half in jest. "I would prefer to wait until he comes down.''

"Go!" shouted Curran.

Curran, who has lately taken pointed jabs at Foster's leadership, launched another zinger Thursday, referring to a report that the mayor told Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala that the Rays are deliberately trying to hurt attendance by not promoting the team.

The two sides will never work things out "if we keep firing shots across the bow,'' Curran said. "We want to maintain our legal standing and yet we want to continue to bad mouth the Rays? I don't think that's good.''

Foster reiterated his emphatic denial that he told Latvala any such thing.

"I am not going to allow a gross exaggeration from a private conversation to impede our progress with the Rays," he said.

That interchange aside, the council meeting was largely genial and upbeat.

Council member Jeff Danner suggested charter buses linked to distant sports bars, opening day parades and events in the park.

"Build some excitement for the Rays in this region,'' Danner said. "That's where you've got to start.''

Council member Steve Kornell said the chamber of commerce and School Board might team up to buy tickets for schoolchildren. "Pump up the stadium with kids," he said.

Council member Karl Nurse talked of supporting regional mass transit, including a proposed referendum that would allow the county transit authority to forgo property taxes in favor of a sales tax.

"What keeps people away is not the distance (from the stadium),'' Nurse said, "but the anxiety of whether it is going to take 45 minutes or 145 minutes.''

Council member Wengay Newton lauded the council for kicking around ideas and said he was tired of a widespread perception that the Rays will eventually end up in Tampa.

"We have to get the buzz back on our Rays staying here in St. Petersburg,'' Newton said. "It's got to be St. Pete, St. Pete, St. Pete. Period.''

St. Petersburg City Council pleased to finally have say on Rays issues 10/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2011 10:50pm]
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