ST. PETERSBURG — While campaigning for mayor, Bill Foster has twice taken credit for squelching the Tampa Bay Rays' push last year for a new downtown waterfront ballpark.
Here's how he put it three weeks ago during a League of Women Voters debate. He was trying to illustrate his contention that, unlike rival Kathleen Ford, he works well with people.
"I am actually the person that enticed the Rays to hold (back) that referendum item on the waterfront stadium because I was against it. And again, working with people and building consensus, they saw the light and they too saw that it was a bad idea."
He repeated the notion last week at the Council of Neighborhood Associations.
Let's go back to June 2008, when a deadline for a stadium referendum was fast approaching. Frustrated City Council members were badgering the Rays for financial details. Mayor Rick Baker had never voiced support for the plan. And a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll showed that 68 percent of residents opposed the idea.
Finally, on June 25, the Rays held a news conference at Valpak to announce they were withdrawing their request for a referendum, which killed the waterfront deal.
Could Foster, then a private citizen, have played such a pivotal role in reversing the Rays thinking?
Here's his take:
Foster thought the Rays were moving too quickly and the waterfront referendum was doomed.
Worried that relations between the team and community would be damaged, he discussed possibilities for alternative stadium sites and a slower timetable with members of the Pinellas County Commission and the Tourist Development Council, who control a bed tax that presumably would have to underwrite a stadium construction.
On June 18, a week before the Rays pulled the plug, Foster wrote letters to the Tourist Development Council and commission, urging what he called "Plan B."
Withdraw the referendum. Forget the waterfront. Form a task force of political and community leaders to figure out a stadium location the public could support. Take five to eight years to build it — about when the current bonds on Tropicana Field would be paid off.
"The lack of support for a waterfront stadium is not an indictment of our love affair with baseball or the Rays," he wrote. "It's just this plan — this location — this timing. There's no rush. Remember, it took the Rays eleven years to build a winning franchise."
A week later at the Valpak news conference, Foster says he was approached by Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater lawyer who was advising the Rays.
"Ed came to me," Foster says. "He said, 'It was your letter to the TDC and to the board of county commissioners that I used to convince (Rays principal owner Stuart) Sternberg to pull it.' "
That statement is why Foster concludes he is "actually the person that enticed the Rays" to abandon their waterfront plans. He never talked directly to team officials, he said.
Asked this week about the Valpak encounter, Armstrong offered this statement:
"I was at the press conference and spoke to Foster. I told him I thought his letter was very constructive. In fact, many factors led to the team's decision to withdraw the waterfront proposal."
Asked if he told Foster that he had used the letter to persuade the Rays to pull the plug, Armstrong referred all questions to Rays vice president Michael Kalt.
Kalt declined to comment on Foster or the letter, other than to say that many factors went into abandoning the waterfront plan.
At the Valpak news conference last year, Rays president Matt Silverman made no reference to Foster in explaining why the team was changing direction. Instead, Silverman cited the lack of time for such complex negotiations.
"The tight timetable and looming November referendum was a constant shadow, a cloud that was looming over the process," Silverman said.
The Rays also announced that Florida Progress chief executive Jeff Lyash would lead a committee of community leaders to study other stadium locations and financing.
This group became known as the ABC Coalition, which is expected to produce a final report in the next few months.
Foster had recommended just such a task force in his June 18 letter, but does not claim sole authorship for the idea.
A Times story back then reported that, "City and county leaders consistently have argued for a possible Plan B. Former City Council member and likely mayoral candidate Bill Foster became the latest to advocate a more protracted approach last week, when he suggested forming a baseball blue ribbon committee."
Since neither Armstrong nor the Rays will discuss what effect, if any, Foster's letter might have had on their thinking, we cannot dismiss the possibility that it did exert some influence.
But Foster was just one of many public officials and citizens urging the Rays to slow down and to consider other locations.
With 68 percent of residents opposing the waterfront stadium, it's a good bet the Rays didn't need Foster's prompting to realize their proposal was on life support.
Plus both Armstrong and Kalt now say "many factors" led to abandoning the waterfront plan.
When Foster contends that, "I am actually the person that enticed the Rays" to withdraw their referendum, it comes across as exaggerated campaign rhetoric.
Giving him the benefit of the doubt that his letter might have played some role, we rate his statement as Barely True.