As baseball season heats up, so has public discussion over a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. It is a reasonable conclusion by the Rays and the community that the team's vision of a downtown waterfront stadium is dead in the water. While the concept had considerable merit, the practical and political obstacles appear too difficult to overcome. But if one site is off the table, both the Rays and the city need to remain open to other options.
The Rays are understandably lukewarm to a new stadium on the site of Tropicana Field in downtown St. Petersburg. The site does not fare as well as others when compared by the size of the population within a 30-minute drive. The ocean of empty seats at many games during the week and the robust attendance on weekends fuels the notion that fans from north Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco are reluctant to make the trip after work. But it would be a mistake for the team to push hard now for another site.
The Trop site has its positives. New stadiums around the country have been built in downtowns, not at suburban sites surrounded by acres of asphalt. A downtown stadium and the fans it draws add vibrancy to the city. The Trop site already is publicly owned, reducing the cost of a new stadium — and most of the credible candidates for St. Petersburg mayor prefer that location. Its warts, including some traffic flow issues, are well-established and can be addressed.
At the same time, it is too early to rule out other potential locations north of downtown St. Petersburg. The Rays have legitimate concerns about the need to be closer to the population center of a sprawling metro area. Most of the options, from the old Sod Farm to the Toytown landfill along Interstate 275 to the Carillon Town Center in mid Pinellas, are well known and have been considered as stadium sites in years past. Focusing on a privately owned parcel is going to drive up the stadium cost, and each site has its own drawbacks. Yet there may be a way to combine a new stadium with other development into an attractive showcase on one of these sites — or another one outside downtown St. Petersburg that may not be apparent yet.
The Rays, the mayoral candidates and the community should remain open-minded. Let the group led by Progress Energy president Jeff Lyash, A Baseball Community, finish its evaluation of prospective areas inside and outside St. Petersburg. Let the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce gear up its new effort to sell the importance of Major League Baseball as an economic driver for the city. Let the mayoral campaign unfold, and let's see which candidates have the best vision for a new, reasonably priced stadium.
There is time for an orderly public discussion, and the economic recession is going to have to ease before anybody talks about a date for ground-breaking ceremonies. In the meantime, the viability of various stadium sites will become clearer. Rather than prematurely focusing on one stadium site, the Rays and the community should keep their eye on the broader goal: Keeping Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.