Perhaps there is a ray of hope, or maybe it was just a nice summer night in Boston's Fenway Park and a pennant race that triggered Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg's optimism. Regardless, Sternberg's upbeat assessment of his private stadium talks with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster offer some hope of breaking a stalemate that has lasted too long. There are options that protect the city's interests and preserve Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay, and it is time to move forward.
Sternberg spoke in broad terms about the discussions and was careful not to break an agreement with the mayor to avoid negotiating in public. But the outlines of one possible compromise that would let the Rays study potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have been clear for months. In general, the Rays would agree to thoroughly evaluate a proposed stadium in St. Petersburg's Carillon Business Park and then have an opportunity to examine sites in Tampa. There may be other options on the table as well. But the overall goal should be clear: Acknowledge the reality that the Rays will not be playing at Tropicana Field until their lease expires in 2027, find the best spot for a new stadium, and keep the franchise in Tampa Bay.
There has been no public movement on the stadium issue since Foster took office 3 1/2 years ago, despite his acknowledgement during his first campaign that the next mayor would have to address it. So a more upbeat outlook by Sternberg and Foster's willingness to negotiate take on greater significance. This is a positive acknowledgement by City Hall that standing still and clinging to the long-term lease is not a long-term strategy that benefits the city.
There is a greater sense of urgency to move ahead on the stadium issue than there was four years ago. The team has continued to play well on the field, but attendance remains among the worst in baseball even as the economy is recovering. County commissioners in Pinellas and Hillsborough are eager to move forward, and there are other Pinellas interests that are clamoring for a share of the resort tax money that will be free when the stadium bonds are paid off. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's interest has helped highlight the issue. So have efforts by St. Petersburg City Council member Charlie Gerdes and a few of his colleagues to force some movement. Sternberg says other team owners are growing impatient, and baseball commissioner Bud Selig's annual warning about the need for a new stadium sounded sharper than usual.
If there is any doubt that a baseball franchise benefits a region and its stature, consider this: When Tampa International Airport was successfully wooing an airline based in Panama City, Panama, to add flights here, one airline executive was taken to a Rays game and others were given jerseys with their names on the back.
Foster and Sternberg should keep negotiating in good faith. There are options for a reasonable compromise that allows the Rays to look in both counties for stadium sites, protects St. Petersburg's financial interest, and guarantees the franchise will remain in Tampa Bay for decades to come.