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Tampa Bay Rays stalemate keeps two downtowns in limbo

Here's a question:

How long should Jeff Vinik wait? The Lightning owner wants to develop his land around the Tampa Bay Times Forum, but the possibility of a baseball stadium in that location has kept him in limbo.

Here's another question:

How long should Pinellas County wait? There are projects that could use $6 million in annual bed taxes, but that money may eventually be needed for a new stadium.

Here are several questions:

How long before city planners in St. Petersburg can pitch the idea of an expanded downtown encompassing Tropicana Field's 86 acres? Should mass transit plans bank on a new baseball stadium in downtown Tampa? How about the Gandy corridor in St. Petersburg?

In many ways, both sides of the bay are at a crossroads. There is an opportunity to re-imagine and reinvigorate two downtowns, but one key issue must first be resolved.

When will the Rays be allowed to look in Tampa?

"Time is of the essence,'' said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "No one can expect Mr. Vinik to do nothing with that land for six or seven years until this gets resolved.

"Major League Baseball thinks downtown Tampa is the best location for a new stadium, and that's certainly what I think, too. But we can't even begin to have a conversation until the Rays come to some kind of agreement with St. Pete.''

For most of the summer, it appeared the Rays and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster were making progress toward an agreement that would allow the team to discuss the construction of a new stadium outside of St. Petersburg.

That optimism was shattered when Foster wrote a recent memo to the City Council that criticized MLB as a hindrance to negotiations.

No matter which side of the issue you line up on — new stadium or no new stadium — it's hard to portray the memo as enlightening or productive.

By now, almost everyone agrees the Rays will not be playing in Tropicana Field come 2028. Even Foster has come to accept that reality.

That means there are three possibilities: The Rays will already be in a new stadium in Hillsborough, a new stadium in Pinellas or they will pack their bats and leave the market entirely in 15 years.

So do we need to begin making that decision soon?

Only if we want to make informed and astute choices regarding the future of two major downtowns.

"It is imperative that we move forward,'' said Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch. "It's not the end of the world if the Rays leave, because we can repurpose that land and find other projects to fund.

"But it does us no good to have all of these issues and questions in a holding pattern. This conversation needs to be kicked up a notch.''

Here's one notch-kicker:

Drop the confidentiality agreement. If the Rays are refusing to offer compensation — as some City Council members have suggested — then let's find out. And if Foster is being unrealistic, then let's find that out, too.

The other alternative, particularly if Foster is re-elected in November, is for the Rays to deal directly with the City Council.

We can't begin arguing about locations, finances or even whether we want to pay the price to remain an MLB market until we get past this first step. Enough time has been wasted already.

Get the deal done.

Tampa Bay Rays stalemate keeps two downtowns in limbo 09/14/13 [Last modified: Saturday, September 14, 2013 7:37pm]
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