The decision by the Atlanta Braves to leave the city for a new stadium in a suburban county offers a lesson for Tampa Bay: Every year that ticks off the Tampa Bay Rays' lease to play at Tropicana Field reduces leverage for St. Petersburg and makes it more likely the team could leave the region. But there are other reasons St. Petersburg Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman and the City Council should move quickly next year to reach an agreement to let the Rays look at potential stadium sites on both sides of the bay:
Transit. In November 2014, Pinellas voters are expected to decide whether to approve a 1 percent sales tax to pay for enhanced bus service and light rail. The Department of Transportation has agreed to build at least a substructure for rail on a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge; Tampa International Airport plans to connect to a new Westshore transit hub; and Hillsborough officials are contemplating their next transit effort. Where and when rail is built affects where a stadium should be built.
Tax revenue. In 2015, the Tampa Convention Center bonds will be paid off and the redevelopment districts that generated the revenue for them will expire if they are not reapproved. The same year, the Tropicana Field bonds paid by a portion of the Pinellas resort tax will be paid off. Both of those revenue streams would be needed to help pay for a new baseball stadium in their respective counties, and claims on the money by other legitimate interests already are being made. If there is no clarity soon about where a stadium would be built, there may not be enough public money to help build one anywhere in Tampa Bay.
Development. In St. Petersburg, Fortune 500 company Jabil Circuit may build a corporate headquarters near the Trop that could transform downtown. If Jabil moves and the economy continues to recover, the stadium's 85-acre site would become more attractive to developers. In Tampa's downtown, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik now controls more than 20 acres around the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Some of that land could be used for a baseball stadium, but Vinik could have other ideas.
Voter referendums. There is no appetite in Hillsborough or Pinellas to ask voters to approve spending public money on a new baseball stadium. But Pinellas officials are mindful that voters will be asked to approve four critical taxes in the coming years. Voters could decide whether to approve a new transit tax in 2014, extend one property tax for the Juvenile Welfare Board and another property tax for public schools in 2016, and extend the Penny for Pinellas sales tax in 2017. No one wants to risk the fate of those worthy efforts by angering voters with an acrimonious debate over a new baseball stadium.
Intangibles. The economic rebound could stall, making it harder to allocate public money for a stadium and for the Rays to attract more fans. Deals for new stadiums across the country could be difficult for Tampa Bay to match. A new baseball commissioner could change the conversation in a way that hurts this region's effort to keep major-league baseball.
The last four years have been wasted in the stadium stalemate, and hiding behind the long-term lease was a failed strategy. There is no more time left to waste.