Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Editorials

Counties' leaders step up to the plate

It's remarkable how one demonstration of practical leadership can lead to another. Less than a week after the Hillsborough County Commission voted to meet with the Tampa Bay Rays to discuss the need for a new stadium, the Pinellas County Commission has decided to extend its own invitation to the team. It's about time these conversations started, and the more public discussions there are, the better.

The leadership had to come from somewhere, because it has not been coming from St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. He would have been the logical one to start these public talks with the Rays two years ago. After all, St. Petersburg holds the lease with the Rays to play in Tropicana Field and pays the largest share of the stadium's debt payments. But Foster refuses to allow the Rays to study both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and fails to recognize that Major League Baseball is a regional asset that the entire area has an interest in keeping in Tampa Bay. In the absence of any secret plan, his failed strategy of stalling and threatening to sue anyone who discusses stadium options puts that regional asset at risk.

Despite fielding a successful team on the field, the Rays have not been a success at the gate under owner Stuart Sternberg. The team is near the bottom among 30 teams in average attendance this year, and the outdated Trop is not a viable long-term home. The Rays are not going to be playing there until the lease expires in 2027, or even in 2020. Every year that goes by with no action on a new stadium makes it less expensive for the Rays to break the lease and move to another city — and reduces St. Petersburg's negotiating leverage.

Finally, the Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissions have stepped in to fill this leadership void and jump-start the discussion with the Rays. Pinellas owns the Trop site and contributes county resort taxes toward the stadium debt, so it is particularly important for those county officials to initiate talks. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn stands ready to engage, and most members of the St. Petersburg City Council will want to participate as well. That leaves Foster in an awfully lonely corner, and he can join the conversation or be left behind.

The burden does not fall entirely on elected officials to explain to the public the importance of keeping baseball in Tampa Bay, investing in a modern stadium and picking the location that makes the most sense. The Rays have a responsibility to help make the case, outline options and contribute significantly toward the stadium cost. The team should reveal more about its finances, and it should be prepared to offer something of value to St. Petersburg and Pinellas County in return for examining potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough for a limited period.

The meetings with the Rays and the county commissions won't occur until after the baseball season, and expectations should not get too high. It often takes several years to find a suitable site, design a stadium, arrange the financing and get one built. There will be plenty of bumps along the way, but the talks have to start somewhere. Since the St. Petersburg mayor won't lead, it's only natural that the county commissions on both sides of Tampa Bay have stepped up to the plate to preserve a vital regional asset.

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