St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has taken a positive step forward in negotiations with the Tampa Bay Rays to let the team look at stadium sites in Tampa while protecting St. Petersburg's financial interests. The Hillsborough County Commission and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn should let those negotiations play out before forming stadium committees and sending moving vans to Tropicana Field. This has to be a united regional effort to secure the future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay, and reopening old parochial wounds would not be helpful.
Foster has come a long way in three years, from clinging to the Rays' long-term lease to play in the Trop and refusing to let the team look at potential stadium sites in Tampa to engaging in productive private talks with team officials over the last four months. The Rays are a regional franchise, and it is logical for the franchise to look throughout the region for the best spot for a new stadium. The longer St. Petersburg stalled and refused to budge, the less negotiating leverage the city had as years clicked off the stadium lease.
It took outside pressure for Foster to adjust his approach. He acknowledged to the Times editorial board this week that efforts by the county commissions in Pinellas and Hillsborough, and the St. Petersburg City Council, to break the stadium stalemate had an effect. So did the disappointing attendance for the Rays, who rank near the bottom of the league in attendance even as the economy is recovering and the team is in the middle of a pennant race.
But Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commission chairman Ken Hagan should let St. Petersburg and the Rays negotiate an agreement before they start planning for baseball opening days in Tampa. Hagan should put aside the notion of appointing a task force within the next two weeks. Acting now only fuels the suspicions of St. Petersburg residents who remember the 1980s battles over which county would build a baseball stadium. Hillsborough has no grasp of the public appetite for building a stadium in Tampa. And there has been no conversation among the various agencies that would play a role, from the county's mass transit agency to the Tampa port, which owns key downtown property. Having flirted with the Rays from afar, Hagan and Buckhorn have to consider the costs of a real relationship. And if St. Petersburg works out an agreement with the Rays, any new task force working on the stadium issue should have members from both Pinellas and Hillsborough.
The mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa also should choose their words more carefully. Foster acknowledged doubts about whether Tampa Bay can support a Major League franchise, when he should have been working harder the past three years to demonstrate that it can. Buckhorn bragged that Tampa is "a baseball town,'' but neither St. Petersburg nor Tampa can support a franchise alone. Only the Tampa Bay region working together can accomplish that.
Credit Foster for recognizing that if the Rays are to remain in Tampa Bay for decades, the team has to be able to look at potential sites in Tampa before deciding on the best location for a new stadium. Credit Buckhorn and the Hillsborough commission for helping the St. Petersburg mayor see the light — but they need to let St. Petersburg work out the details of any stadium site search before moving forward. This a regional issue that requires regional cooperation, and neither side of the bay is going to solve it alone.