It's becoming an Opening Day tradition: another Tampa Bay Rays sellout, another season with high expectations on the field — and another year with no significant progress toward a new stadium that would ensure baseball's long-term future in the region. But we're hours from the first pitch, and hope springs eternal.
Since the last Opening Day, there have been modest developments in the stadium stalemate. The Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions held separate public meetings with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg. The St. Petersburg City Council became more engaged, although a smart plan by council member Charlie Gerdes to jumpstart discussions failed on a tie vote. And developer Darryl LeClair stirred up more interest with his proposal to build a stadium in the Carillon development, an inspired, if flawed, concept that failed to gain traction.
The public conversations helped educate business officials, voters and baseball fans throughout Tampa Bay about the importance of moving forward on exploring how to replace outdated Tropicana Field. They highlighted the shortcomings of the dome and its St. Petersburg location, and Sternberg sounded sincere in his interest in finding a way to keep the Rays franchise in the region for the long haul. The conversations also reinforced that elected officials and business leaders throughout Tampa Bay want Major League Baseball here and are eager to move forward.
The bottom line, though, remains the same. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster refuses to let the Rays look at stadium sites outside the city or adjacent county parcels. Sternberg reasonably argues that the franchise has to consider sites in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties because the Rays cannot afford to make a mistake. In Miami, the Marlins now have a state-of-the-art stadium in an inconvenient location — one of the reasons their first-year attendance figures did not reach expectations.
The environment is ripe for a break in the deadlock between Foster and Sternberg. They recently met privately, and since then neither side has been sniping at the other or recounting the conversation. In this case, no news may be good news. Here's hoping the talks continue through the season.
Foster faces re-election in August, and he has yet to demonstrate any leadership on this issue. Hiding behind the long-term stadium lease with the Rays and pretending the team will be playing at the Trop until 2027 is not in the best interests of the city or the region. Neither is hinting at lawsuits if anyone in Hillsborough County talks about baseball stadiums beyond generalities. During his campaign for mayor four years ago, Foster sensibly recognized the value of public input, acknowledged the next mayor would have to talk to the Rays about a new stadium and envisioned construction could start as early as 2016. His performance in office has been at odds with his campaign rhetoric, but perhaps there is still time for the mayor to move forward before the election.
The best course of action still appears to be for St. Petersburg to seek reasonable compensation from the Rays in return for permission to study potential stadium sites in both counties. The economy also is brighter, increasing the possibilities for the city to redevelop the Tropicana Field site if a stadium is built elsewhere. Foster and Sternberg should continue to talk, and government and business leaders throughout the region should continue to press for a breakthrough.
There have been helpful stadium conversations since the last Opening Day. There should be more significant progress in evaluating the options before the next one.