With St. Petersburg City Hall and the Tampa Bay Rays locked in a stare-down over a new stadium, the public discussion is advancing. Three developments in the last week underscore the challenges of creating a financing plan for a new stadium and selecting the best location. They reaffirm why the city's refusal to view the baseball franchise as a regional asset is counterproductive to keeping it in Tampa Bay.
First, Tropicana Field is costing St. Petersburg more than anticipated when the long-term lease with the Rays was signed in 1995. The original hope was the city might make enough to help defray its $6 million in annual debt payments on the dome. Instead, the city's costs this year are about $1.3 million above that total. Insurance is a major reason, but so are the lack of revenue from other events and smaller than expected crowds at Rays games. The costs are a compelling reason for the city to allow broader conversations about a different stadium site.
Second, the Pinellas County Commission's conversation about extending the tourist development tax reflected how much work needs to be done just to keep the current Tropicana revenue stream in place for a new stadium. A permanent extension of the tax failed by a single vote. Commissioner Neil Brickfield, who voted against the permanent extension, then provided the required fifth vote with his compromise to extend the fourth and fifth cent of the tax to 2021. His leadership helped the Salvador Dalí Museum and preserved the stadium money for now, leaving the ultimate discussion for another day and better economic times. There is a strong case to be made to keep using the resort tax for a new Rays stadium, but it will be tough to find enough votes for it on this commission. And building a new stadium will cost more than what the city and county spend now on Tropicana Field.
That is why the third development is important: The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce plans to study how to finance a new baseball stadium without relying exclusively on public money. Chamber chairman Chuck Sykes said the right things about focusing on financing ideas without regard to stadium locations. The more area leaders brainstorm about solutions, the better.
While St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster says he welcomes the Tampa Chamber's discussions, his approach to the stadium issue needs to be broader. The mayor made a positive contribution in July by proposing to amend the Rays' lease to allow potential stadium sites in Pinellas to be examined. The Rays reasonably responded that they want to study sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough simultaneously. It makes sense to examine the entire range of possibilities within the market's two largest counties and see what works best. To artificially limit the options would be shortsighted and counterproductive.
Sorting out revenue options and stadium sites takes time. It's important for that work to start, and Foster and the Rays' ownership need to break the stalemate. They are perfectly capable of reaching a fair agreement to enable the Rays to consider stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough — and nowhere else.