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How should St. Petersburg answer Rays owner Sternberg?

If you're the mayor of St. Petersburg or a member of the City Council, what do you do in response to Monday's statement by the owner of the Tampa Bay Rays?

The owner wants to talk about (1) a new stadium in the next few years that is (2) definitely not in downtown St. Petersburg and (3) maybe not even in St. Petersburg at all.

Oh, and he also hopes St. Petersburg will get into the "cooperative" spirit of the thing. That means allowing the Rays to consider "every ballpark site in Tampa Bay."

Yet that would be a big psychological concession for St. Petersburg, given that the Rays' lease, which lasts until 2027, does not allow the team to go out flirting with other places.

Until now, the city's basic response to any talk of a stadium outside St. Petersburg has been to throw its hands over its ears, start chanting "na na na!" and threaten to sue somebody, anybody, everybody.

That's why the City Council wouldn't even hear the report of the ABC Coalition, the business group formed by the last mayor to consider a new stadium. That outfit had dared to include possible sites outside the city, too.

All of this is by way of saying that the city's answer is probably going to be: Yes, we mind very much, a deal is a deal, and if you want to talk about a new stadium at all, you have to deal with us.

At least, that was what the mayor repeated to me Monday afternoon: The city will be "standing firm" on the terms of the lease.

I asked the mayor, who is a lawyer: Couldn't you give them permission just to talk about locations outside the city? He replied that it would take a formal amendment to the Rays' lease, which he would not support.

So this brings us to an interesting impasse.

You can argue that St. Petersburg should be big and grownup about all this, and consider the interests of the overall Tampa Bay area instead of its own parochial situation.

You can agree with the Rays that Tropicana Field will not, cannot, sustain a team in the long run and that the team must move elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area to survive.

You can cite the findings of the ABC Coalition, that business group formed by the previous mayor, which found several possible sites for a new stadium.

You can argue (as the Rays do, and as I agree) that the best of these sites are the most centrally located, including the Carillon/Gateway area of Pinellas, or the West Shore or downtown areas of Tampa.

You can warn that without a new stadium deal, the Rays certainly will leave Tampa Bay in a few years, lawsuits or no lawsuits, leaving a check and a note on the mantel.

All reasonable statements.

And yet St. Petersburg waves its lease in the air and says, "No, you can't talk about it with anybody else."

This is either very dumb and shortsighted …

Or, from a sheer, parochial point of view, maybe kind of smart.

If the mayor's intention is to get the Rays to stay in St. Petersburg, with a deal for a new stadium, then this could still work out.

But if the city's only plan is to cite its lease and threaten lawsuits and say "no, no, no" to anything else, then it will eventually get left. St. Petersburg will have succeeded in keeping baseball out of Tampa — but not, say, Portland, or Charlotte, or whoever takes it away.

How should St. Petersburg answer Rays owner Sternberg? 06/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 22, 2010 9:16am]
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