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Will stadium be on agenda when Rays owner, St. Petersburg mayor meet?

ST. PETERSBURG — Two years after a waterfront stadium deal fell apart, Tampa Bay Rays' owner Stuart Sternberg is going to huddle this week with Mayor Bill Foster.

What will transpire behind closed doors is anybody's guess: Do the Rays want a new stadium? Do they want permission to move to Tampa? Is this just a friendly chit chat?

Rays vice president Michael Kalt, who requested the meeting, declined to comment Friday. Foster said he's in the dark.

"One of my biggest partners wants to come visit the mayor,'' Foster said. "I have no idea what it's about. I am happy to talk about anything he wants to cover.''

Rick Mussett, senior administrator for city development, said Kalt called him early last week, asking for time on Foster's calendar. Mussett offered Monday or Tuesday.

"Kalt said it would be mostly a social visit,'' Mussett said. "We don't know what they are going to say. It could be almost anything, though the 'mostly' is the key qualifier.''

The city was still waiting Friday for the Rays to decide which day best suited Sternberg's calendar, Mussett said. "It sounds like he's not going to be (with Foster) more than 30 minutes. He has other things going on.''

Sternberg, who lives in New York, usually brings his family to St. Petersburg once or twice every summer, typically to watch the Rays play high profile opponents like the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees.

The team finishes a weekend series in Miami today, is off Monday and plays San Diego Tuesday through Thursday at home.

The Rays have contended for several years that Tropicana Field cannot generate enough revenue to support a consistently competitive team. They have lamented low attendance. They have said they cannot stay at the Trop through 2027, when their contract with the city expires.

But since their waterfront proposal failed in 2008, they have largely avoided public discussions about a new stadium, saying they would rather concentrate on their team's play on the field.

The team came under considerable criticism over the waterfront proposal. Since then, a plummeting economy has made the notion of a new, publicly financed stadium even less palatable to the public.

Nevertheless, pressure has mounted on the Rays to renew talks with the city: If the Trop won't support baseball, what does the team want?

A group of community and business leaders called the ABC Coalition studied the stadium issue for 18 months and recommended in January that the city and Rays begin negotiations immediately toward replacing the Trop.

The coalition stirred the pot further by suggesting that the Rays would eventually leave the area without a new stadium and that downtown Tampa, west Tampa or the mid-Pinellas Gateway area were better locations than downtown St. Petersburg.

The notion that the Rays might covet Tampa gained further credence when St. Petersburg City Council Chair Leslie Curran put Kalt on the spot at an April meeting and he declined to commit the team to St. Petersburg, even with a new stadium.

This month, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce chimed in, supporting a new stadium, but only at the current Trop site, Gateway or some other location within city limits.

Foster seconded that notion Friday. He didn't want to speculate on what Sternberg might say next week.

But if the Rays' owner seeks permission to explore Tampa options, Foster said, "I would say no.''

"My citizens are well invested in this team, financially, mentally, physically and spiritually, and I will do everything within my power to see that my obligations and (the Rays) obligations are met'' under the Trop contract, Foster said.

Sternberg and Foster discussed stadium issues privately at the Governor's Baseball Dinner just before the season opened in April.

Next week's meeting would be the first at City Hall.

Will stadium be on agenda when Rays owner, St. Petersburg mayor meet? 06/20/10 [Last modified: Sunday, June 20, 2010 1:11am]
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