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Tampa Bay Rays getting invitation to talk with Pinellas County

ST. PETERSBURG — Coming fast on the heels of Hillsborough County, the Pinellas County Commission extended its own invitation Tuesday to the Tampa Bay Rays to discuss the team's future.

Intent on keeping the Rays in the area, Pinellas officials watched last week as their across-the-bay counterparts took the controversial step of asking the team to start discussing its plans. At a meeting Tuesday, Pinellas commissioners voted unanimously to make their own request: Meet with the home team first.

Pinellas County administrator Bob LaSala said the invitation came in response to comments made by St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster in a Tampa Bay Times story about Hillsborough's overtures to the Rays. Foster characterized it as "outside interference" into a matter that should be kept between the baseball team, his city and Pinellas County. Never before, said Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala, had Foster acknowledged the county could have a role in persuading the Rays to stay.

"He cracked the door and we're kicking it open," she said.

Any formal sit-down would take place after the Rays' season is over, LaSala said, in the lull before spring training.

"I think it's good to get the entities that are funding the current stadium and the Rays together and talk about the future," said Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch, whose district includes most of St. Petersburg.

Welch said he is looking for a better understanding of how long the Rays are willing to remain in Tropicana Field, a venue that many consider past its prime.

"Their timetable is the most important thing to me," he said. "That field has several years of life left in it, but what are their long-term plans? What are their wishes from a business standpoint?"

Welch said that about two months ago, the commission asked its attorney, Jim Bennett, to investigate the legality of a formal sit-down with the commissioners and the Rays. Foster's response to Hillsborough's inquiries simply sped things up.

Foster has already agreed to the meeting, Welch said. The two men discussed the issue last week at a back-to-school event. On Tuesday, Foster could not be reached for comment.

Legal obligations tie the Rays to the stadium for 15 more years, but the team has threatened to leave before its lease expires. Florida, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County still owe millions on the stadium, and the Rays' management has largely been silent on where it would prefer to go.

Pinellas commissioners said they had no particular game plan or strategy for the meeting, and several said it was too early to make specific offers to keep the team here.

Any offer would likely come with a financial enticement from the city and county, something that could be difficult to stomach at a time of declining property values. And though revenue from tourism is increasing, the county could be on the hook for millions in repairs to beaches eroded by Tropical Storm Debby.

Still, the thought of the Rays moving to a city beyond the bay, or worse, another state, has a majority of the commissioners eager to find a solution.

"We want the Rays," Latvala said. "And we want them to stay in the region. And if it's not working in St. Petersburg, let's move them where it does work."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Chairman Ken Hagan, who led his board last week to request a similar meeting with the Rays, applauded the Pinellas invitation.

"I'm delighted to hear this news," Hagan said. "All that I've been trying to do is to create opportunities for a regional discussion. I am very pleased to see that Pinellas County sees the value in speaking with the Rays."

Asked if he means that he'll be pleased with a solution in Pinellas, he said: "Absolutely."

Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Tampa Bay Rays getting invitation to talk with Pinellas County 08/07/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 9:19pm]
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