ST. PETERSBURG — As the Tampa Bay Rays remain conspicuously silent on a new stadium site, signs are growing that no location in St. Petersburg will satisfy the team — not downtown, not mid-county.
City Council member Leslie Curran put the question to a test at a recent public meeting. Spotting Rays vice president Michael Kalt in the audience, Curran invited him to the podium and asked him point-blank: "Do you want to stay in St. Petersburg?''
"I don't think that's a question we are prepared to answer at the moment,'' Kalt said. "We want stay in the Tampa Bay area. We haven't ruled out any locations.''
That's not what a city official contemplating a multimillion dollar investment wants to hear.
"Quite frankly, I'm not feeling the love,'' Curran said later. That "tells me they are not going to hesitate to look outside St. Petersburg.''
Mayor Bill Foster campaigned on eventually building a new stadium — either downtown or in mid-Pinellas in St. Petersburg's Gateway area. "It was little disheartening,'' Foster said, "to have (Kalt) asked that question and truly not answer it.''
The Rays have avoided stadium controversy since their push for a waterfront site fizzled last year. They say they want to focus on getting their red-hot team back to the World Series. Stadium talk is a distraction.
But lukewarm attendance continues to stoke debate over whether Tropicana Field and St. Petersburg can support a successful team in the long run.
By one account, once-grand plans for the downtown waterfront now look foolhardy in retrospect. Even the Gateway area — as close as you can get to Tampa without crossing the bridge — has attracted doubts that it can jump-start attendance.
The ABC Coalition, the civic group pushing for a new stadium, has said that downtown St. Petersburg is too remote from where most Tampa Bay residents live and work.
Now coalition spokesman Craig Sher warns that moving the stadium from downtown to Gateway — 12 minutes closer to Tampa — still might not work if Hillsborough fans and business executives remain reluctant to cross the Howard Frankland.
"The Rays and St. Pete have to seriously test the viability of that," Sher said. "We can't afford to make a half-billion-dollar mistake.''
He and others have urged the Rays to express their desires to city officials — the team's landlords for the next 17 years. But the Kalt-Curran exchange might indicate that Rays have cooled to both downtown and Gateway, Sher said.
Perhaps, the Rays "don't know what they want to say to Mayor Foster," he said.
If team owners have soured on any St. Petersburg site, the Tampa Bay stadium debate has reached a thorny standoff.
St. Petersburg officials generally prefer the Trop site. North Pinellas leaders favor Gateway. Renewing the Trop's city and hotel taxes could generate $200 million or more for a stadium estimated to cost $550 million.
And the Rays?
While they might covet a Tampa site, sports venues have already drained Hillsborough coffers. Even Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio is working to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg.
Just before opening day, she approached Rays president Matt Silverman with this idea: Plan a new Gateway stadium. Pass a penny sales tax in Pinellas for light rail. Link it across the bay to a similar system in Hillsborough. Then put a mass transit station inside the stadium, bringing fans right to the ticket window.
"In the scheme of things, it would be a small expense in terms of what it costs for light rail and a better transit system,'' Iorio said.
But Curran still wonders why downtown St. Petersburg fared so poorly in the ABC Coalition's analysis. Just two years ago, the Rays offered $150 million toward a waterfront stadium.
"If that was the best thing since sliced bread,'' she asked Sher at a meeting of Pinellas's Tourist Development Council, "why is downtown St. Petersburg the worst place to have a stadium now?''
Sher said he couldn't speak for the Rays, but "in the rear view mirror,'' drive-time studies indicate that the waterfront location "was probably a mistake.''
Underlying all stadium talk is attendance at the Trop.
St. Petersburg council member Karl Nurse said he could not believe only about 23,000 attended Saturday's game against Toronto and the concert that followed.
"The Rays ought to be given almost amazing credit for putting together the best team in baseball with a third of the money of their two biggest competitors,'' Nurse said. "I was stunned it wasn't a sellout. They have got to be scratching their heads and saying what do they have to do?''
Tuesday and Wednesday, the Rays averaged 10,758 in attendance against the Oakland Athletics, winning both games to bring their record to 16-5.
But the season is young. Glass half-full theorists would note that the Rays' 24,275 attendance average through Tuesday ranked them 19th in a 30-team league, better than last-year's 23rd place finish.
Half-empty theorists would note that the Rays have played most of their home games on weekends, including three against the Yankees. Plus, dreary April weather typically depresses northern teams' attendance.
Rays owners decline to comment about this year's attendance, as they have with other stadium issues.
But in a rare moment of candor last year, Silverman showed how they feel since they won the 2008 American League pennant. He spoke after a lightly attended World Series rematch with the Philadelphia Phillies.
"When we're near the bottom of the major leagues in attendance on a night with a special match-up, it shows how far away we are from the league average,'' he said. "It just doesn't feel good."
Nobody favors a new stadium until the economy improves, Nurse said, but "I'm more worried about some other city if this doesn't get resolved.
"If the Rays do fabulously well and certainly go to the playoffs, if that doesn't drive attendance up by a double-digit percentage, they have to shake their heads and say I guess nothing will drive attendance up,'' he said.
"And then if I were the Rays, I would begin a conversation that maybe there is someplace else people would interested.''