The Tampa Bay Rays open a new season today with new ticket packages, new improvements to Tropicana Field — and the same old stalemate over building a new stadium to ensure the future of major-league baseball in this region. It's time for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to negotiate an agreement to let the team look at sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. If they don't decide soon, the stadium decision is going to be made for them as other private projects and public priorities move forward.
This window of opportunity will not be open much longer. In 2015, the Tropicana Field bonds paid by a portion of the Pinellas resort tax will be paid off. Other projects already are making pitches for a share of that resort tax money. In Hillsborough County, the Tampa Convention Center bonds will be paid off next year and the redevelopment districts that generated the revenue for them will expire if they are not reapproved. Higher car rental fees already are allocated toward paying off bonds for an expansion at Tampa International Airport. Those sorts of revenue streams would be needed to build a new baseball stadium, but the money will be allocated to other projects if the stadium discussion does not move in a clear direction soon.
Property in and around potential stadium sites also could be gobbled up for other uses. Fortune 500 company Jabil Circuit is still considering whether to build a corporate headquarters near Tropicana Field that could transform downtown and make the Trop site even more attractive for other uses besides a baseball stadium. In Tampa's downtown, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik controls more than 20 acres around the Tampa Bay Times Forum and is believed to have other ideas for that property. A nearby flour mill site has potential as a stadium site, but the mill would have to be moved and some of Vinik's property still would be needed.
Hope springs eternal on opening day, and there remains hope that the stadium stalemate can be broken. Kriseman, who took office in January, promised a fresh approach and has had a cordial opening chat with Sternberg. Key negotiators from both sides, Rick Mussett from the city and Michael Kalt for the Rays, have moved on and created an opportunity to bring in new faces with new ideas. The distrust and hard feelings between former Mayor Bill Foster and Rays officials are no longer factors.
The bottom line, though, remains the same. The Rays will not be playing in the Trop when its lease expires in 2027. The franchise needs a modern stadium, and it needs to be able to look in both Pinellas and Hillsborough for the best location. The city and the team need to reach an agreement that would let the Rays look in those two counties for a reasonable amount of time in return for some financial benefit to St. Petersburg. It's up to Kriseman and Sternberg to make that happen, and there is no more time to waste.