ST. PETERSBURG — The rift over a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays deepened Friday when Mayor Bill Foster rejected the team's request to explore stadium sites in Hillsborough County.
In a letter to Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, Foster said the only way to preserve the city's interests is not to let the team look for stadiums outside St. Petersburg or the Pinellas Gateway area.
The Rays, which Foster called a "source of great civic pride," have a written agreement to play 1,215 more regular season games at Tropicana Field. Besides offering the excitement of baseball, the team is an employer, economic driver and a tourist draw for the city, Foster wrote.
"Make no mistake," Foster said, "this is not about money, and the city has absolutely no interest in winding down our relationship prior to 2027."
Foster's letter is a response to Sternberg seeking permission to explore stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. He asked after CityScape, a St. Petersburg developer, unveiled plans last month for a stadium in the Carillon Business Park.
Sternberg said he would consider the Carillon plan only if the team could also look outside the city. He also offered to give the city veto power on any location.
The Rays say the Trop will not support baseball and have refused to consider new Pinellas sites unless they can also examine Hillsborough possibilities. The team this season became the first in major-league history to win 90 games and finish last in attendance, drawing 1,559,681.
Foster's letter "surprised and disappointed" Sternberg.
He said only a regional dialogue will preserve baseball for generations of Tampa Bay fans. He expected the City Council to discuss a response during a public meeting after City Attorney John Wolfe told the group that on Oct. 11.
The Rays, Sternberg said, look forward to meeting with Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissions. Both groups invited the team to talk about its future. No meeting dates have been set.
"We invite all interested parties, including the St. Petersburg City Council, to join the conversation," he said.
The stalemate between the city and team has grown ever since the Rays' waterfront stadium proposal fizzled in 2008. There has been little give and take. But a splashy presentation last month of a proposed stadium in the Carillon Business Park lit a spark.
A Carillon stadium would cost between $540 million and $570 million and occupy land just inside city limits near the Howard Frankland Bridge.
Foster wants the Rays to explore the Carillon plan. He believes a site in St. Petersburg or the Pinellas Gateway would be "the source of pride for generations of Tampa Bay residents."
Council member Jim Kennedy wonders why the team has balked at the Carillon plan since it didn't cost them money. He questions whether they really have an interest to stay in the area.
"I think the Rays are being shortsighted," he said. "I really hope they would sit down with CityScape. There's no harm in talking to them."
Giving the team permission to look outside the city, Foster believes, would weaken St. Petersburg's legal standing in court if the team attempts to move before 2027.
Foster's two-page letter briefly summarized the city's relationship with the Rays.
While Tampa and Hillsborough focused on professional hockey and football, St. Petersburg has spent "hundreds of millions of tax dollars" on baseball.
He reiterated that Sternberg bought the Rays in 2005 with his "eyes wide open" and fully aware of the agreement to play at the Trop through 2027.
Foster also pointed out that the city has approved other requests such as moving spring training games to Port Charlotte, which broke a 90-year tradition, and playing a series of games in Orlando.
Council member Karl Nurse said Foster's response should have focused less on Hillsborough County and more on urging the team to fully examine the Carillon plan. If the team rejected the proposal, he said, Tampa could be added to the discussion.
But Nurse believes Foster's and Sternberg's egos are holding back progress.
"Frankly, if we could all take a deep breath, that would be the logical thing to do," Nurse said. "There isn't another plan on the table for a stadium."
Foster wants to end the volley of letters.
"While we can write letters all day long, my preference is still a face-to-face meeting to discuss these issues of great mutual importance," Foster wrote Friday.
In a second letter to the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, Foster reiterated his position with the group and thanked them for their support.
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.