St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's rope-a-dope strategy for avoiding discussion of a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays was on full display this week. The charade of a briefing provided by his staff and the city attorney to the City Council revealed little and suggested there is no plan beyond hiding behind the stadium lease and threatening to sue anyone who offers one. Fortunately, others are beginning to step forward to fill the leadership void.
A group studying the financing of a baseball stadium — a joint effort by the Greater Tampa and St. Petersburg Area chambers of commerce — is asking smart questions on both sides of the bay. Most intriguing, Tampa city officials estimate the city theoretically could contribute up to $100 million toward a new stadium. That would probably be a bond issue backed by money now used to pay the city's debt on the Tampa Convention Center, which will be paid off in 2015. It's all just about options now, but it is the sort of information that needs to be gathered and more than Foster has publicly offered.
The St. Petersburg City Council workshop on Thursday, two parts history and one part saber-rattling, underscored the mayor's refusal to engage. Foster said he did not want to get into "what-if scenarios" and skipped much of the meeting. His ally on the council, chairman James Kennedy, stuck to the script and unfairly cut off council member Leslie Curran's questions. That heavy-handedness won't play well, and neither will city attorney John Wolfe's refusal to answer questions in public or warnings about the city negotiating against itself. Continuing to cite the lease and suggesting the Rays could play in outdated Tropicana Field until the agreement expires in 2027 is not a viable strategy for keeping Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.
There is a silver lining to Foster's stonewalling. The more enlightened council members are growing impatient and finding their voices. Jeff Danner, Steve Kornell, Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse joined Curran in expressing frustration and asking smart questions. Kornell got Wolfe to acknowledge there is nothing in the lease that prevents the city from working on detailed options for a new stadium. Nurse noted it would be useful to connect light rail to the stadium debate, because one key issue is making it easier for baseball fans to get to games. And Danner suggested inviting officials from the Rays and the chamber study group for a broader public discussion. They should keep pushing for more brainstorming about a new stadium and fewer threats of lawsuits.
Business leaders on both sides of the bay are engaged and gathering helpful research on stadium funding. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is thinking out loud and hitting the right political notes. And a majority of the St. Petersburg City Council — which has the authority to amend the lease with the Rays — wants to get in the game and participate in broader discussions. Foster still has an opportunity to lead. But if he continues to stall, the public conversation about a new stadium and the future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay will move on without him.