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Pro-baseball group looks to end impasse between St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay Rays

Clutch Hitters, a local group promoting the Tampa Bay Rays to area companies, is now swinging for something bigger — a new stadium.

Group leaders will meet with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster on Aug. 10, hoping to end the standoff between the city and the team over building a replacement for Tropicana Field.

The Rays want to leave downtown St. Petersburg and find a site for a stadium elsewhere, possibly Tampa. But Foster has refused to allow the team to explore any options that aren't in St. Petersburg or on adjacent county land. The team's contract with the city binds them to the Trop through 2027.

The Rays responded by saying they won't look anywhere if they can't look everywhere.

"We do believe a new stadium for the team is needed for the long term," said Kenny Locke, a St. Petersburg investment executive who sits on the Clutch Hitters' steering committee. "Really, we're getting frustrated with the lack of dialogue toward finding a solution."

Clutch Hitters, which includes 75 bay area business leaders, began a public campaign last year to boost corporate investment in suites and tickets to see the Rays play.

But this summer group members visited other stadiums, including a June trip to Seattle to see the Mariners play the Rays at Safeco Field, which features the downtown skyline and sunsets over Puget Sound. They also went to Detroit and Houston, coming away with the impression that better suites and better concourse designs are needed in a Tampa Bay stadium.

That led the group to take a more aggressive stand on keeping Major League Baseball here. And unlike Foster, that means looking outside city limits because "Tropicana has served its purpose," Locke said.

"It's our belief that all of Tampa Bay needs to be included," he said. "It's a regional asset, and for them to remain in the region, all the region needs to be included."

The group isn't proposing a specific location — or for that matter, a plan to pay for a new stadium that could cost as much as $600 million.

Instead, he said the group is focused on emphasizing the need for new stadium talks to begin, fearing delays hurt the community's leverage to negotiate.

In recent months, Locke said, that effort included discussions with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, area chambers of commerce and the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional economic development group that has offered to help talks.

Clutch Hitters also met with the Rays, who are not actively involved but are "appreciative" of the effort, Locke said. Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt declined to comment.

Foster said Tuesday that any proposal for a stadium must recognize the investment taxpayers put into Tropicana Field, and the city's relationship with the team.

"And then it's got to get sweeter," he said of a stadium proposal detente.

His offer to discuss sites within St. Petersburg or adjacent county land remains on the table, Foster said.

"I know a lot of people are discouraged that the two parties of the contract aren't talking," Foster said. "And I will say that no one is more discouraged at the lack of communication than I am."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.

Pro-baseball group looks to end impasse between St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay Rays 08/02/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 10:38pm]
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