A community group performed a valuable public service by spending 18 months studying possibilities for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. Now St. Petersburg city officials are slamming the door in their faces because they don't like the results. It is a petty, parochial response that fails to recognize the Rays are a regional franchise whose future depends on regional support.
The ABC Coalition gathered a wealth of useful information about stadium designs, funding options and Tampa Bay demographics. Among its reasonable conclusions: Renovating outdated Tropicana Field is impractical, and a new stadium should feature a retractable roof and natural grass. The report highlights the need for broader corporate and fan support for the Rays, and it details how other major league stadiums are more centrally located in their metro areas.
The coalition wisely avoided recommending specific stadium sites but highlighted five potential areas: the Tropicana Field site, the Gateway area in mid-Pinellas, the West Shore area in Tampa, downtown Tampa and the state fairgrounds in eastern Hillsborough County. From a demographic standpoint and stadium drive times, the coalition suggested the Trop site and the fairgrounds are not as well-situated as the other three. That gives St. Petersburg officials heartburn, but it is no justification for ignoring this good work.
The pinched view of the St. Petersburg city staff that city officials can have nothing to do with the ABC Coalition because of the city's stadium lease with the Rays is absurd. This is a community group, and it cannot buy land or act as a third party to negotiate on behalf of the Rays. Long-term vision has never been City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran's long suit, so it's not surprising she won't put the group on the council's agenda. Mayor Bill Foster should be more enlightened. He was the first in 2008 to suggest defusing another stadium debate by creating a community group to study the issue. During last year's campaign, he recognized the need for public input and acknowledged enforcing the existing lease until it expires at the end of 2026 is not a viable option. What exactly is the harm in listening to a civic-minded group that devoted considerable effort to produce a provocative, objective report?
Here's the harm in not listening. It insults the community leaders in the coalition who are among the area's strongest supporters of keeping Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay. It frustrates the Rays ownership, which has been patient even though the team has little interest in remaining for years at the Trop site — with or without a new stadium. And it sends the wrong signal to Pinellas County, which helps pay for the stadium with resort taxes. Good luck persuading county commissioners to kick in county revenue for a new St. Petersburg stadium with this arrogant approach.
The stadium discussion needs to continue, and St. Petersburg officials should not be so defensive. The city has advantages the ABC report does not take into account: The lease with the Rays, the publicly owned Trop site and an existing revenue stream that could be redirected toward a new stadium after the Trop bonds are paid off. The ABC report also may put too much emphasis on 30-minute drive times to stadium sites, an issue that would be diminished if a new stadium is linked to a commuter rail system.
The ABC Coalition should seek invitations to take their report on the road, from Pinellas to Hillsborough to Pasco and beyond. The Rays ownership should weigh in soon, and St. Petersburg city officials should reconsider their position. This is a regional major league franchise, and resolving the stadium issue will require a regional solution.