BOSTON — Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg sounded optimistic Tuesday that his long-standing stadium impasse with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster might soon be resolved.
"The details I'm certainly not going to speak about, but it is no secret that the mayor and I have had a number of conversations over a lengthy period of time, and I would like to believe that that's going to bear some fruit and allow us the opportunity to put this franchise on great footing for generations to come,'' Sternberg said.
Foster declined to elaborate on the negotiations Tuesday night, but City Council Chairman Karl Nurse said city and team lawyers "have been trying to draft an agreement" for months that would allow the Rays to look at potential stadium sites in Tampa, as well as St. Petersburg.
An agreement would define ground rules for the search and reinforce the team's current obligation to play at Tropicana Field through 2027, Nurse said. The Rays also would have to thoroughly examine a proposed stadium in St. Petersburg's Carillon Business Park before looking in Tampa, he said.
The city would be protected, Nurse said, because neither side could break the team's current contract to play at Tropicana Field "unless both sides agree." He said he didn't know any other details.
The Rays want "to do what we think is necessary to at least see what's out there," Sternberg said, speaking before Tuesday's game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. A civic group that studied the stadium issue suggested in 2010 that the Rays need to find the best site in the Tampa Bay area to maintain a successful franchise — and that meant looking in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
"That's all I want to do in life right now," Sternberg said.
Foster, who has so far limited any stadium searches to Pinellas County, declined to comment on whether he is softening that stance or whether any compromise with the Rays is imminent.
"I don't know how to answer that,'' he said. "We've done nothing but converse. I think we're going to continue with the dialogue.''
Foster said talks heated up after St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair pitched a retractable roof stadium in Carillon last September and the team made a presentation to the Pinellas County Commission earlier this year.
Though Sternberg has hinted for months that negotiations are under way, none of his previous comments has suggested a possible breakthrough.
His remarks are also noteworthy because they come only a month before a tight mayoral primary in which the three main candidates have staked out distinctive positions on the stadium issue.
Rick Kriseman supports a proposal by council member Charlie Gerdes to let the Rays examine stadium sites in Hillsborough County — provided the team pays a fee up front just for the right to look.
Kathleen Ford has said that such an approach would weaken the city's legal position if the Rays ever unilaterally broke the Trop agreement and the two sides ended up in court. She also says taxpayers have too much invested in Tropicana Field to let the Rays leave.
Foster has not budged publicly from refusing to let the Rays look outside Pinellas but has been holding multiple discussions with them about the future.
Foster denied that the primary is a factor in the talks: "We've been trying to talk for years,'' he said. "People have implored us to talk.''
"We're trying to protect the Rays and city's objectives," he said. "We are preserving the taxpayers' investments and interests."
Another backdrop to discussions is the improving economy and the Rays' contention that the Trop's 84 acres — now largely an empty parking lot — would be more valuable developed. That notion also could extend to adjacent city land that Jabil Circuit has looked at as a possible new headquarters for up to 1,600 employees.
Foster denied any connection between Jabil's interest and his talks with the Rays.
Sternberg said pressure from league executives and other team owners has "been ratcheted up" on the Rays to improve their stadium situation, as they rank 29th in major league attendance despite stellar play.
So far this year, the team is drawing 17,790 fans on average, ahead of only the Miami Marlins and well below the league average of 30,434. Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig called it "very disappointing and very worrisome."
Selig also said he had "a very high level of frustration" and that his patience was running thin. Sternberg said Selig is not the only one, especially owners of other teams who contribute revenue sharing funds the Rays receive.
Asked if he was confident the stalemate would be soon resolved, Sternberg stopped just short. "I'm never quite confident about those things," he said. "I'm not confident when there is more than one party involved."