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St. Petersburg council elections could break city's stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — In the standoff with the Tampa Bay Rays over a new stadium, the City Council has been Mayor Bill Foster's ace in the hole.

The eight-member board hasn't wavered in its support of Foster's refusal to allow the club to explore locations in Hillsborough County.

But that unified front could be fracturing. Half of the council seats are up for grabs this year, and in each race, a candidate could be elected who would want to end the stalemate.

During interviews with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board last week, only two candidates, incumbents Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton, didn't offer any immediate change in course.

"The election obviously provides an opportunity to revisit the city's approach," said Chris Steinocher, president and chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

"It'll put more spotlight on the conversation. I'm not sure it will change the conversation, but it offers everybody a chance to understand where we're at."

The council is no mere observer in the stadium showdown. The board has the power to amend the city's contract with the Rays, which binds the team to Tropicana Field through 2027. If a council member were to make a motion to amend the use agreement — and a majority agreed — then city attorneys would be required to bring the offer to the Rays. Foster could veto such a measure, but the council could override that with a two-thirds vote.

Last summer, Rays owner Stu Sternberg announced he wanted to leave downtown St. Petersburg and explore stadium sites on both sides of the bay. Foster, City Attorney John Wolfe and the City Council refused, saying they'd only allow the club to explore sites in the city or nearby in the county. The Rays countered by saying they wouldn't explore any site if they couldn't explore all.

Neither side has budged.

The three candidates running for the District 1 council seat say the status quo won't do. The seat is being vacated by Herb Polson, who decided not to run again.

Charlie Gerdes, a lawyer, takes the city's current position personally. He served on a committee of the ABC Coalition, a group of business leaders that identified downtown Tampa as the best location for a new stadium. The City Council refused to hear the group's findings.

"I was really disappointed, just short of insulted, when the product of our work wasn't given a hearing," Gerdes said.

While he wants to keep the team in St. Petersburg, or at least Pinellas County, he said he would consider Tampa as a last resort.

"So far, this gamesmanship is counterproductive," Gerdes said. "Letting (the Rays) look might be the best way to bring them back to St. Pete when they discover that this really is the best place to play. But if we keep throwing a lease in their face, we're not getting anywhere."

One of his opponents, financial adviser Joshua Shulman, said city officials haven't just drawn a line in the sand, they've drawn it in concrete.

"I'm not sure playing hardball benefits us," Shulman said.

City officials should work with the Rays to find a solution that can help both sides, such as moving the stadium to the Carillon area, closer to Tampa, he said. The new stadium could be built using green technology. Tropicana Field could be redeveloped in a project that could usher in a downtown renaissance.

"The City Council's role is to be vocal on this issue," Shulman said.

Bob Kersteen, a former council member, said he's a consensus builder who would "commence negotiations." While vague about what he'd do if elected, he said be willing to discuss changing the contract, if only to get the conversation started.

"We need to talk with the Rays," Kersteen said. "If we don't, we won't know their needs."

In the District 7 race, both candidates said they support Foster's handling of the issue. But political consultant Gershom Faulkner, who's challenging Newton, said the city's tone must change.

"The city and the mayor have taken an adversarial role, where I think we should be business partners," he said. "We need to improve communication with the Rays."

Newton, however, said while he thinks the Rays need a new stadium, it would be difficult for the council to take a more active role. He said he'll do what he can to keep the Rays, but offered no suggestions on how.

Kornell, who's running for re-election in District 5, didn't offer any suggestions as to how to break the current deadlock.

While he's open to discussing a new stadium, Kornell said he wouldn't push the issue himself.

"I'm not sure me jumping into the middle of that debate is productive," he said. He prefers a go-slow approach, waiting for the city to pay off bond debt on the Trop in 2017, then pursuing a similar financial arrangement for the future.

His opponent, charitable foundation marketing executive Bill Protz, said the city needs to be more flexible and consider allowing the club to move to Tampa.

"You have to find a middle ground. There has to be compromise," Protz said. "If we can't keep them in St. Pete, we have to keep them in Tampa Bay. I'll bring a voice of reason to the negotiations."

Although Bill Dudley has moved in lockstep with Foster on the stadium issue, he said he's no longer satisfied with the city's position and will be more assertive in pushing his idea for a new stadium at the current Tropicana site that would also include a convention center and hotel.

"We have something those convention centers in Tampa and Orlando don't have — beaches," Dudley said.

His opponent for his District 3 seat, radio producer Brent Hatley, also said he would promote a new stadium, as long as it was in St. Petersburg. While he said the Rays should respect its contract with the city, he'd be more aggressive in seeking federal money for a new stadium that uses green technology.

"They have a contract," Hatley said. "But let's sit down and talk about it."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg council elections could break city's stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays 07/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 30, 2011 10:41pm]

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