ST. PETERSBURG — Despite a growing chorus among business and civic leaders that Mayor Bill Foster end the city's stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays over a new stadium, Foster won't budge when it comes to letting the club explore sites outside Pinellas County.
A sign of the ongoing chill: Foster wasn't on the travel itinerary of Rays owner Stu Sternberg, who was making one of his rare visits to the area Wednesday.
"I didn't even know he was here," Foster said.
He even suggested that Sternberg might be meeting with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn because the last time he visited he met only with Buckhorn, Foster said, laughing. (Turns out Buckhorn is on vacation in North Carolina.)
"I haven't spoken with Stu since the first week in May," Foster said. "That meeting was to establish if there was movement in either philosophy. And the answer was 'no.' "
Sternberg wants to explore stadium sites outside of Pinellas County, most notably downtown Tampa. Foster said he'll let the Rays explore locations only in St. Petersburg or adjacent lands in Pinellas County. Otherwise, Foster intends to hold the Rays to their contract, which requires the team to play at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season.
On Wednesday, Foster spoke just minutes before a 4 p.m. meeting with the Clutch Hitters, a local group promoting the Tampa Bay Rays that has recently urged the city and the Rays to resume talks about locations for a new stadium.
Foster said he would be unavailable for comment after the meeting because it was his 26th wedding anniversary. But he said he could already say that he wouldn't change his stance.
"I'll listen to what they have to say," Foster said, "but I'll reaffirm my position.
"Everyone keeps calling the Rays a regional asset, but my folks (city taxpayers) have real skin in the game. If the Rays attempt to leave the city and county, my city will suffer irreparable harm."
By that, Foster said, he meant he didn't believe a suitable use could be found for the 85 acres that are now occupied by Tropicana Field, especially in an economy like this one.
"It's not like anyone is going to build a theme park," Foster said.
He also said he didn't expect the eight-member City Council, which has the power to renegotiate with the Rays and allow them to look elsewhere, to get involved.
"This group," Foster said, crooking a thumb at the council offices, "they enjoy having me take the hits on this."
Three members of the Clutch Hitters attended the meeting with Foster: Kenny Locke, a St. Petersburg investment executive; David Feaster, president and CEO of Cornerstone Community Bank; and Bob Byelick, an Abbey Adams law firm partner in St. Petersburg.
As they signed in at the City Hall visitor's log before the 4 p.m. meeting, they declined to comment. Locke said Byelick would answer questions after the meeting, which was held in Foster's second-floor office.
Ellen McDowell, the mayor's administrative support manager, had guards stop news reporters from waiting in the mayor's office lobby during the meeting.
"It's my call," McDowell said. "I have that power."
She also said that, despite Locke's statement that Byelick would speak with reporters, no one from Clutch Hitters would comment after the meeting. When asked who told her this, she said she overheard it and couldn't remember who said it.
More than 90 minutes after the meeting started, city spokesman Robert Clydesdale told reporters the meeting had ended. Foster and the Clutch Hitters had slipped out through a back exit.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8037.