Saturday, November 18, 2017

30-year-old thinking on the Rays


A St. Petersburg resident rescued Tampa's Republican National Convention with several million dollars. A Tampa resident brought Major League Baseball to St. Petersburg. County commissioners from north Pinellas County helped save St. Petersburg's new Salvador Dalí Museum. All three statements are true, but the geographic descriptions are beside the point. The reality is that Tampa Bay is one metro area whose success depends on transcending boundaries to promote regional assets.

Yet in St. Petersburg City Hall, it's still 1986. That is when the bitter fight between St. Petersburg and Tampa over baseball ended and the St. Petersburg City Council voted to build the domed stadium now called Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay has matured since then, cooperation has replaced old rivalries and the Rays have played at the Trop for 15 seasons. Only St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and City Attorney John Wolfe remain in denial, stuck in the past and fighting outdated parochial battles over another baseball stadium.

Wolfe sent a bellicose memo last week to Hillsborough County attorneys, threatening a lawsuit if county commissioners meet in public with Rays officials to talk too specifically about the team's quest for a new stadium. Wolfe's parsing of St. Petersburg's long-term lease with the Rays is legally suspect and linguistically creative, and his pride of authorship in the lease is showing. Foster has no such excuse for his mishandling of the stadium issue.

For those scoring at home, the Rays reasonably want to look in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for a site for a new stadium to replace the outdated Trop. A regional franchise needs to look at its entire market, and the Rays have ranked at or near the bottom in attendance despite fielding a competitive, entertaining team. Foster refuses to let the Rays look outside St. Petersburg or nearby Pinellas.

This is a fatally flawed strategy. Every year that ticks off the lease makes it easier for the Rays to leave Tampa Bay. Pinellas County commissioners understand the need for a regional discussion, and they plan to meet with the Rays. So do Hillsborough County commissioners, who should not back down. So does Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. So does the business community on both sides of the bay. So do pragmatic St. Petersburg City Council members such as Jeff Danner and Charles Gerdes. The number of public officials hiding with Foster behind pinched legal opinions shrinks by the month.

St. Petersburg resident Bill Edwards runs the city's Mahaffey Theater, built an impressive city welcome sign at the Howard Frankland Bridge — and contributed more than $4 million to the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Original Rays owner Vince Naimoli was awarded the baseball franchise in the 1990s, signed the lease with St. Petersburg to play in the Trop — and drove from his Tampa home to the games. Pinellas Commissioners Neil Brickfield, Susan Latvala, John Morroni and Karen Seel live north of St. Petersburg — and voted to extend the county tourist tax to provide more construction money for the new Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg.

They all recognized the value of cooperation to ensure Tampa Bay succeeds as a major metro area capable of supporting national political conventions, big-league baseball and world-class museums. Yet the St. Petersburg mayor remains in denial and stuck in the '80s. Foster's strategy may get him to next year's election for mayor, but in the long run it is a losing one for the city.


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