ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays formally asked Thursday for the right to explore new stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties — a request that could lead to negotiations with the city for an early exit from Tropicana Field.
In a letter to St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg proposed an amendment to the team's contract that would allow stadium negotiations on both sides of Tampa Bay while giving the city veto power over any final deal.
The letter basically restated the Rays long-standing position that the team needs a new stadium and should not be restricted to St. Petersburg sites.
Besides offering the city veto power, Sternberg also promised to hold first discussions with CityScape, a development group that recently unveiled plans for a new stadium in the Carillon Business Park. The proposed stadium would cost between $540 million and $570 million and occupy land just inside St. Petersburg city limits near the Howard Frankland Bridge.
"We truly appreciate the effort City Scape LLC has put into its proposal,'' Sternberg wrote to Foster. "We very much look forward to discussing it.''
Foster said he needed to consult with staff and City Council members before formulating a response. The current Tropicana Field contract, which runs through 2027, forbids the Rays from negotiating a new stadium deal anywhere. And Foster has been adamant that Rays must stay in St. Petersburg for the next 15 years, either at Tropicana Field or in a new stadium.
But Foster did characterize the Sternberg letter as "opening dialogue."
City Attorney John Wolfe talked about a possible counteroffer.
"We are going to look at it, see what we can add and see what we might take out,'' Wolfe said. "And then we will send it back.''
Several council members interrupted a routine meeting Thursday to pepper Wolfe with questions about how they might contribute ideas to the city's response.
After the Rays' waterfront stadium proposal fizzled in 2008, there has been little give and take between the team and the city. But a splashy presentation of the Carillon proposal two weeks ago lit a spark.
Foster offered to fly to New York to meet with Sternberg, to see if they could find "common ground'' so the Rays could examine the CityScape proposal in detail.
Sternberg apparently did not take up the offer for a sit-down, but his response Thursday did advance the discussion by proposing a specific contract amendment.
The Rays also sent letters to the Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissions, accepting previous invitations to provide those bodies with stadium updates. The team's current contract does not prohibit general discussions about stadiums, just "negotiations.''
"I'm thrilled that the Rays have accepted our offer to come to speak to our board,'' Hillsborough commission Chairman Ken Hagan said Thursday. "This is what I've been pushing for all along. I think this is significant step toward coming to a long-term resolution."
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch lauded the Rays' letter as "a very exciting development" and said he didn't have a problem with the team exploring Hillsborough sites.
The city, the county and CityScape "can put a very competitive proposal on the table but the dialogue has to happen,'' Welch said. "And that hasn't been happening for a few years.''
Reaction among City Council members was mixed.
Steve Kornell said the team should consider only the Carillon proposal, and he would oppose an amendment that would allow the Rays to also negotiate with private developers and government officials in Hillsborough.
"We should have a shot at keeping the team in St. Petersburg before anyone else gets involved,'' Kornell said. "Considering the six or seven million dollars a year we pay for baseball, it is only fair.''
Kornell said he was impressed by CityScape's drive time analysis, which indicated that traffic from Pinellas to Hillsborough clogs up during weekend night games more than traffic from Hillsborough to Pinellas.
He cited Tampa Bay Buccaneer attendance as evidence that a bad economy, not a bad location, has caused most of the Rays' attendance woes.
"If Tampa is a better solution,'' Kornell said, "then why haven't I been able to watch a Bucs home game on TV for a couple of years?''
Council members Charles Gerdes and Jeff Danner asked how they could suggest ideas before the city responds to the Rays.
"The Rays are essentially asking us to break a lease,'' Danner said. "Maybe there should be a monetary value attached to that request.''
Wolfe told council members to contact him individually and he and the mayor would consider their ideas. He also promised to let the council review the administration's response in a public meeting before it goes out to the team.
The Rays' proposed amendment would wipe out the city's ability to sue anyone in Hillsborough or Pinellas County for interfering with the current contact, Wolfe said, but would maintain that threat outside those counties.
The team "could not go to Connecticut,'' Wolfe told the council.
As for the Rays' offer of veto power, Wolfe warned that council members could come under intense pressure if the team cut a tentative deal in Hillsborough and then the city demanded tough buyout terms. The council could be criticized for killing a deal and pushing the Rays away from the area altogether.
"The newspapers are going to be all over us for being unresponsive,'' Wolfe said. "You will have pressure on you from all sides.''
Developer Darryl LeClair, whose CityScape group made the Carillon pitch, said the Rays' letter was encouraging.
"We are hopeful that the city and Rays can find some common ground to get this thing moving forward,'' LeClair said. "If we can get this conversation going with the Rays, we are very confident that Carillon is the best site and we can keep the Rays at home.''
Staff writers Anna M. Phillips and Bill Varian contributed to this report.