The stadium stalemate has been broken. The St. Petersburg City Council's vote Thursday to allow the Tampa Bay Rays to look in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for stadium sites is a victory for the city and the region. It is a vote of confidence in the future and a rejection of the status quo. It unlocks enormous redevelopment possibilities for St. Petersburg at the Tropicana Field site, enables the public and private sectors in both counties to move forward, and provides a path for securing major-league baseball's long-term future in Tampa Bay.
After two rejections of deals negotiated by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and the Rays to start the stadium search, the region and the city could not afford a third strike. The council's 5-3 vote offered no surprises. Council member Amy Foster talked of how her views had evolved and that she recognized the agreement is the only way forward and will help preserve the Rays as a regional asset. New council member Lisa Wheeler-Brown fulfilled her campaign pledge to support an agreement. They joined council members Charlie Gerdes, Karl Nurse and Darden Rice — who have long recognized the benefits of breaking the deadlock — in voting for an improved deal.
There was never any real expectation of budging council members Steve Kornell, who talked in circles again Thursday, or Jim Kennedy, who always thinks there is a better deal just around the corner. New council member Ed Montanari joined them in opposition, but he called it a difficult decision and gave it thoughtful, thorough consideration.
Credit goes to Kriseman and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg for negotiating a reasonable solution. The mayor repaired the city's relationship with the team that had been damaged by his two predecessors, and he kept working after the City Council rejected his first two proposals. A new city development director and a new city attorney helped advance new approaches, including the creation of an escrow fund for redevelopment money from the Trop site that the Rays will share in only if they stay. The Rays, who could have played hardball, agreed to essentially the same payments to the city if they leave that were in an earlier proposal. And St. Petersburg voters sent a strong message that they want the stalemate resolved by electing Wheeler-Brown, who is focused on using this opportunity to create jobs.
Now the focus shifts to looking for stadium sites in both counties and examining ways to pay for a new home for the Rays. The team should expect to make a significant contribution, and it would help if a developer chips in as part of a larger vision. The last time Hillsborough County negotiated a big stadium deal was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and that one tilted toward the team. Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan is eager to lead this effort, but it may be up to Mayor Bob Buckhorn to ensure taxpayers are adequately protected. The push to help the Rays with site selection and create a financing package should be open and transparent, and taxpayers should have a voice.
In St. Petersburg, Thursday's council vote will not be the most difficult one as the stadium issue moves forward. The city will pursue a master development plan for the Trop site with or without a stadium, and Kriseman is wise to form a broad-based committee to sell the Rays on staying. It is hard to envision the Pinellas County Commission and the City Council voting to spend more on a new baseball stadium than the revenue streams they allocated toward Tropicana Field, but now all options can be explored.
This is not the 1980s, when Tampa and St. Petersburg bitterly fought over who would build a stadium and win a major-league franchise. The Rays now are established as Tampa Bay's team, and they will identify the stadium site they believe will best ensure their long-term future. The relationship between the Tampa and St. Petersburg mayors has never been better, and leaders throughout Tampa Bay recognize the region is strongest when everyone works together. Those relationships should continue to be cultivated as this stadium process moves forward, because a divisive competition would not benefit the Rays or the region. The focus should remain on finding the best stadium site that ensures major-league baseball's future in Tampa Bay, creating a financing plan that is fair to taxpayers, and unlocking redevelopment opportunities in downtown St. Petersburg with or without a new stadium.