Finally, there is a flicker of hope in the stalemate between St. Petersburg City Hall and the Tampa Bay Rays over a new stadium. City Council member Charlie Gerdes has a reasonable proposal to let the Rays pay the city for permission to look at potential stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Council members on Thursday should ignore Mayor Bill Foster's objections, demonstrate some leadership and embrace Gerdes' concept.
This is exactly the sort of brainstorming and negotiating that should have taken place years ago. Instead, Foster has been stonewalling, threatening lawsuits and hiding behind the Rays' long-term lease with the city to play in outdated Tropicana Field. That is not an effective long-term strategy for keeping Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay, particularly when the Rays have been playing well but finishing at the bottom in attendance.
Other bay area leaders, including business leaders and public officials, recognize the need for a broader conversation about preserving a regional asset. The recent public meetings by the Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissions with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg have been useful. The Tampa Bay Partnership stands ready to help, and so do the Tampa and St. Petersburg chambers of commerce. Now it is up to the more pragmatic members of the St. Petersburg City Council such as Gerdes and Chairman Karl Nurse to convince their colleagues it is time to take concrete action — with or without the mayor.
The Rays show no interest in remaining in St. Petersburg, and they reasonably want to examine potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Gerdes suggests amending the Rays' lease with the city to allow the team to look in both counties for three years. In exchange, the team would pay the city an annual fee of at least $1.42 million, which equals the city's operating subsidy at the Trop last year for police and insurance. The terms could be adjusted, but the concept is sound.
What Foster and some City Council members fail to acknowledge is that refusing to budge from the current lease does not protect St. Petersburg taxpayers. In fact, it weakens the city's position. Every year that goes by is one less year to pay on the stadium bonds, and most of those will be paid off in 2016. Every year that goes by is one less year on the Trop lease, which expires in 2027. Every year that goes by, the Rays' negotiating position is strengthened.
The Rays will not be playing in Tropicana Field in 2027, and they may not be playing in Tampa Bay by then if serious stadium discussions don't begin soon. It will take years to find the best site for a new stadium, figure out how to pay for it and build it. Gerdes has a smart proposal to get that effort started, reduce the city's costs for the Trop in the short term and protect the city's interests in the long term. The mayor and the City Council should support it.