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As more details emerge about Hillsborough efforts to land Rays, St. Petersburg officials get tough

A swath of land in Tampa’s Channelside district is part of a proposal by one business group for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. The developer behind that idea says she’s trying to give an option to keep the Rays in the region if they ever leave Tropicana Field. The team has a contract with St. Petersburg that forbids even discussion of relocation before 2028.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

A swath of land in Tampa’s Channelside district is part of a proposal by one business group for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. The developer behind that idea says she’s trying to give an option to keep the Rays in the region if they ever leave Tropicana Field. The team has a contract with St. Petersburg that forbids even discussion of relocation before 2028.

ST. PETERSBURG — Hillsborough County's flirtation with the Tampa Bay Rays could spill into the courtroom if it goes much further, St. Petersburg officials warned Thursday.

"We will keep track of the discussions and the people involved and we will take appropriate action at the appropriate time," said City Attorney John Wolfe.

Until this week, talk of the team leaving for new digs in Hillsborough County hadn't raised alarms with the city, at least publicly.

But this has been a busy week. Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee on Tuesday filed a public records request with St. Petersburg seeking a copy of the contract that binds the Rays to Tropicana Field through 2027.

Lee said she wanted to be prepared in case commissioners had questions about the terms during their Wednesday meeting. She also wanted to make sure the county does nothing that would appear to look like it is interfering with St. Petersburg's deal with the Rays.

"We want to be very careful about the message that we send to St. Petersburg," Lee said. "I think the board wants to maintain a good relationship with our sister county and sister cities. We support baseball in the region. We're not trying to induce them to breach their contract."

Wolfe said he didn't take offense at the records request, nor was he surprised. But he said he was closely watching other developments unfold.

On Thursday, the St. Petersburg Times reported that two separate business groups were exploring plans to build a stadium for the Rays in Hillsborough.

One proposal would place a new stadium at the state fairgrounds along Interstate 4. Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco is consulting with this group. A second proposal would put a stadium in Channelside, next to the St. Pete Times Forum.

Claire Clements, the real estate developer behind that concept, said she is not trying to steal the team. She's simply trying to create an option that ensures the Rays stay in the region if they decide to leave the Trop.

"I'm not looking to do St. Petersburg harm," Clements said. "I love St. Petersburg."

When asked what he thought of the two groups, Wolfe replied: "More defendants."

The city's position has long been that there are only two parties involved in new stadium talks — the Rays and St. Petersburg. In fact, the city's contract with the Rays forbids the team from even talking to another city about relocating before 2028.

"The question is: Are they interfering at this point?" Wolfe said. "They would be — if they contacted the Rays."

If that were to happen, he said the city would sue the individuals involved.

Yet while the city was adopting a hard line against those wooing the Rays, it was softening its approach to the club itself.

On Wednesday night, Mayor Bill Foster and St. Petersburg development director Rick Mussett spoke with Rays officials at the Governor's Baseball Dinner. Both said they mentioned the stadium only in passing and called the meeting casual.

But Foster also said it was a breakthrough in his relationship with the team. His approach had been "wait-and-see" with the Rays. If club officials wanted to renegotiate the stadium agreement, they needed to come to him.

Foster now says he will be more engaged and actively lead a campaign to get more support for the Rays.

"I was energized," Foster said. "It's not about a stadium. It's about economics."

Not once did they ask Foster about the stadium agreement, he said. Instead, they told him they needed more support if they are going to stay in the Tampa Bay area through the end of the lease.

"This city has to be the biggest cheerleader for the Rays," Foster said. "We have to get the fire back. That same energy we used to get the Rays here must be energized to keep them here."

Foster said attendance must improve, as well as corporate sponsorships. He plans to meet with chamber groups and business coalitions like the Tampa Bay Partnership.

"Am I worried about people assembling land in Hillsborough and Tampa?" he said. "No. I've seen their budgets. It's not leaving St. Petersburg, I can assure you."

Still, he said he won't sit idly by if these groups start actively plotting to lure away the Rays.

"If anyone in Hillsborough or Tampa is speculating on stadium development for 2028, that's fine," he said. "But if anyone is doing that for a stadium that opens before that date, then that's tortious interference and I will look at that very closely."

But he stressed that the stadium discussion doesn't matter.

"I'm convinced that it's less about their facility and it's more about the support they get from the community," he said.

As has been the case, Rays officials said they've only been observing the events of the past week.

Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn wouldn't comment on Wednesday's discussion with Foster, but said no one from the team has contacted or spoken with anyone in Hillsborough about a new stadium. Asked what was next in talks between the club and the city, Vaughn declined to comment.

Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

As more details emerge about Hillsborough efforts to land Rays, St. Petersburg officials get tough 02/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2010 9:33am]
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