Pinellas County might be willing to help build the Tampa Bay Rays a new stadium, but "probably not in downtown St. Petersburg," County Administrator Bob LaSala said Friday.
Furthermore, LaSala would not rule out the possibility that the county might support a stadium in Hillsborough County, but added "it's too early" and "there are too many unknowns."
LaSala stressed that he was not speaking for the County Commission, but was basing his opinion on a recent report about drive times and demographics that indicated that a mid-Pinellas location would draw more support than one in downtown St. Petersburg.
"I am only reiterating the obvious data from the report," he said.
For several years, county officials have expressed a preference for a stadium site in the mid-county Gateway area, such as the old Toytown landfill or Carillon, both of which are within the St. Petersburg city limits.
But LaSala's comments mark the first time a ranking county official has indicated the county might spurn a downtown St. Petersburg site — a potential blow to city officials.
LaSala first made the remarks at a St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce breakfast Friday, and confirmed them when questioned by the St. Petersburg Times.
The County Commission controls the hotel tax that pays for about half of the bonds on Tropicana Field. Financing a new, $550 million, retractable-roof stadium might be difficult even if the hotel tax once again underwrites construction costs.
Without the hotel tax, public financing would fall almost entirely on St. Petersburg's shoulders and likely would encounter huge political opposition.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster was at a city news conference when he was told about LaSala's comments. He said he was surprised by LaSala's stance on not supporting a downtown stadium.
"We haven't talked about stadiums and funding," Foster said.
When told that LaSala didn't dismiss Pinellas support for a Hillsborough stadium, Foster objected in blunt terms.
"If that's true, then he and I will discuss some legal issues," Foster said. "That's a mistake. He's our partner, and I've ruled (a Hillsborough stadium) out. It's a mistake."
Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt declined to comment about a new stadium, continuing to stress that the team's "focus remains on the field." However, Kalt did say this of LaSala: "We're glad he's engaged in the conversation."
In March, the County Commission heard a report by the ABC Committee that reviewed stadium options, but only after weeks of considering how it might play politically. Even then, commissioners didn't give much feedback because of St. Petersburg's hands-off approach to the committee's work.
County Commissioner Nancy Bostock called LaSala's comments premature given the board hasn't had a chance to talk about options, but stressed she had no qualms about LaSala addressing the issue.
"I think it would be a great time for the County Commission to sit down and have a work session and talk about this," said Bostock, noting that nothing has been discussed in her 18 months on the board.
But discussing paying for a new stadium when a budget shortfall causes job cuts at the Sheriff's Office is a nonstarter, said Commissioner Neil Brickfield. "We're getting way ahead of ourselves."
Nonetheless, Brickfield and County Commissioner Ken Welch emphasized keeping the Rays inside the county, not the city. In fact, the companies that would redevelop Toytown made sure a stadium would be allowed under their plans.
"I actually spoke to the developers early on, and frankly they were excited about a stadium," said Welch, who lives in St. Petersburg.
Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.