ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster and Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg will meet Jan. 17, breaking several months of silence between the two people with the most control over the club's future at Tropicana Field.
Foster said Thursday he called Sternberg in December and arranged the meeting. It will be held in St. Petersburg, but Foster wouldn't reveal a specific location or the scope of the meeting.
"We're just going to have a very candid and conversant and cordial meeting," Foster said. "Contrary to popular belief, we do talk."
Not often enough, according to City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran, who pushed Foster last year to play a more active role in dealing with the Rays.
"It's about time," Curran said. "I'm glad he's doing that. We need to have some type of meeting to see what the future holds. This is a long time coming."
The last time Sternberg and Foster met was May, when the two spoke for about an hour after a baseball game. Their last formal meeting was in the summer of 2010. Afterward, Sternberg held a news conference announcing his desire to search for potential stadium sites throughout the area, including downtown Tampa. He believes that St. Petersburg is not a viable location for a stadium, a viewpoint that didn't change after the team drew the second lowest attendance in major league baseball despite a thrilling stretch run last season.
Foster contends that the current location is viable and that if the Rays try to negotiate for a new home outside Pinellas County it would violate the team's contract with the city. The contract requires the Rays to play at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season.
The city's debt on the stadium will be paid off in 2016, but a separate bond issue financed by $2 million in state sales tax a year won't be paid off until 2026. Foster said he won't allow stadium discussions now unless the new site is in St. Petersburg or adjacent county lands.
The City Council has grown increasingly uneasy about what some say looks like inaction. The eight-member board has the power to amend the contract, but would need six votes to do so to override a Foster veto.
Last summer, Curran pressed Foster for details about his strategy to keep the Rays. After a series of confusing meetings where Foster declared he had a secret plan but wouldn't reveal what it was, Foster and the council agreed in late October to contact the Rays. Foster said he would even fly to New York City.
Council member Charlie Gerdes, who joined the board this month, said he's hopeful the Jan. 17 meeting will at least get the two sides talking again.
"We need to be having a dialogue as frequently as possible," Gerdes said. "If nothing else comes out of that meeting, we need to agree to stay in touch."
Gerdes favors allowing the Rays to negotiate with another city, as long as St. Petersburg gets something in return. He thinks that given the opportunity to explore other cities, the Rays will conclude that St. Petersburg is the best location.
His views are in sharp contrast to those of his predecessor, Herb Polson, who supported Foster's approach with the Rays.
It's unclear how far other council members would go in allowing the Rays to stray too far from St. Petersburg. Even Curran, who supports having discussions about allowing the Rays some flexibility, is quick to add that the city must respect the current contract.
Hence, council members said Thursday they have modest hopes for what can be accomplished at the meeting.
"I'm just hoping that we begin a real discussion," said Steve Kornell.
Karl Nurse and Jeff Danner said they'd like Foster and Sternberg to talk more substantively about transportation. A new transit study will be released in the coming weeks that shows an ambitious $1.5 billion plan for doubling Pinellas County's bus system and installing 28 miles of light rail, all of which would make it easier for fans to reach Tropicana Field.
Outside of City Hall, news of the meeting was hailed by business leaders.
"I'm very excited the mayor has reached out to the ownership," said Chris Steinocher, the president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. "This is a very positive first step."
Times staff writer Steve Nohlgren contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler @tampabaytimes.com.