Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Editorials

Breaking the ice on Rays talks

9,913. 10,877. 11,892. The numbers don't lie. Those are the attendance figures for the Tampa Bay Rays' home games this week, and they are indefensible for a playoff contender. They are the reason it is imperative that public talks begin on a new stadium that will attract more fans and ensure the long-term future of the franchise in Tampa Bay.

It comes as no surprise that the person who has broken the ice on the stalled talks over a new stadium is not St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster or Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg. Real estate developer Darryl LeClair has been quietly working for months on a stadium proposal for mid Pinellas, and the disclosure of his efforts has finally forced some movement. The St. Petersburg City Council will hear LeClair's pitch after the Republican National Convention, and the Rays should attend as a show of good faith. Perhaps the Pinellas County Commission could drop by as well.

LeClair isn't the first to suggest mid Pinellas would make a good site for a baseball stadium. Similar ideas were floated more than three decades ago, before St. Petersburg offered up the undeveloped downtown land where Tropicana Field now sits. The developer's idea suggests squeezing an enclosed stadium in the Carillon business park just west of the Howard Frankland Bridge. The 12 acres of vacant land would be a tight fit, and there would be traffic and parking issues around getting office workers out and baseball fans in. There also is a strong argument that sports stadiums belong in downtowns, not in suburban office parks. But LeClair is an established developer, and his vision is worth talking about.

Of course, far be it for St. Petersburg City Hall to take the common sense approach when it comes to baseball. The City Council agreed to listen to LeClair — and to not ask him any questions. That's like inviting someone to dinner and refusing to eat. But it reflects the paranoia fueled by Foster and City Attorney John Wolfe about protecting the city's long-term lease with the Rays to play at the Trop. It's difficult to see how asking a developer some questions in a public meeting about a stadium plan that is a long shot to advance beyond artist renderings is going to free the Rays to move to Las Vegas or wherever. The Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissioners are not likely to gag themselves when they hold public meetings with the Rays to discuss the stadium issue.

Despite this fumbling around, the Rays should attend the City Council meeting and listen to LeClair. That does not affect Sternberg's reasonable argument that the franchise should look at potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. This is a regional franchise, and it needs to look at the entire region. It doesn't hurt the Rays to show up and politely listen to the developer and be a good sport about it. Boycotting the meeting would only spur Foster and Wolfe to keep floating their speculation that Sternberg wants to move the team away from Tampa Bay. There is no public evidence to suggest that's likely, and it's not Sternberg whose actions are threatening the future of Major League Baseball here. It's Foster, who refuses to recognize that the Rays will not be playing in the outdated Trop until the lease expires in 2027.

Maybe LeClair has the magic solution. It's likely he doesn't. But it's worth a public discussion, and both the City Council and the Rays ought to engage him. At this point, any talking is better than no talking at all.

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