Leadership abhors a vacuum, and Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan is trying to fill a big one on the Tampa Bay Rays stadium issue. His interest in asking the county attorney to determine whether Hillsborough can talk to the Rays about their future may not be the best approach. But his frustration is understandable given St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's failure to lead. As long as the mayor refuses to engage in a meaningful stadium discussion or view the Rays as a regional asset, pressure will build for someone else to step up and force the issue.
As a candidate in 2009, Foster predicted a new stadium could be under construction as early as 2016. Yet after nearly 27 months as mayor, he has failed to advance any meaningful discussions as the Rays continue to struggle with attendance in outdated Tropicana Field. The Rays reasonably want to look at potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and Foster refuses to let the franchise look outside St. Petersburg or nearby mid Pinellas. He has continued to use the stadium lease as an excuse for stalling and his own failure to suggest a creative approach that treats Tampa Bay as one market and protects the city's financial interest.
As Foster buries his head in the sand, the conversations are moving forward without him. Some members of the St. Petersburg City Council have raised their voices, although they seem oddly pacified for the moment. The chambers of commerce are quietly studying stadium financing options. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has made it clear he is ready to brainstorm stadium solutions as soon as there is an opening. Now Hagan appears poised to explore a more direct approach and challenge Foster's pinched reading of the Tropicana Field lease.
There is a better way. Foster should propose amending the lease to allow the Rays to study stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough for a limited period. In return, the Rays would pay the city for the opportunity. It's not at all certain where the ideal stadium site would be, given the complications of assembling the land, finding enough parking and exploring funding options. And regardless of the results of a comprehensive look at the market, St. Petersburg would be protected financially. The city would still hold the Trop lease with the Rays that doesn't expire until 2027.
The most recent meeting between Foster and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg produced little beyond happy talk about selling more tickets. The Rays are reluctant to force the stadium issue at the moment as a new season approaches with high expectations on the field. But this unproductive standoff needs to end, and if Foster won't take the initiative, a more direct approach like Hagan suggests may be the only way to move forward. It would be helpful if the Pinellas County Commission would find its voice as well, given that county resort taxes help pay for the Trop and would be needed to help pay for a new stadium.
The baseball stadium conversation is going to continue with or without the St. Petersburg mayor. The more voices joining in a good-faith effort to brainstorm ideas, the better.