St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has taken a positive first step by offering to let the Tampa Bay Rays explore stadium sites in the Gateway area in mid Pinellas. The second step should be allowing the Rays to compare those locations to others in Tampa. The Rays are a regional franchise, and the goal should be to find the best site for a new stadium in this region that ensures the team's long-term future.
Tampa Bay has evolved into one region, and there are plenty of examples to support that view. From transportation to higher education, from drinking water to health care and the arts, there is more coordination than ever. The real competition is with the nation's other big markets, not between the communities that make up this region. Major league baseball has to be viewed in similar terms.
The ABC Coalition, a civic group that studied the stadium issue, understood that dynamic when it suggested five potential areas in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for a new home for the Rays. The Tampa Bay Partnership reflects such cooperation and has helpfully offered its assistance in the stadium discussion. The Rays' $50,000 contribution to the Hillsborough initiative to add light rail and other transportation improvements is another strong statement about how the franchise views the market.
St. Petersburg City Hall is slower to acknowledge the reality that this is one region and that an unnecessarily pinched search for a stadium site is not in the best interests of the Rays, baseball fans or taxpayers. The reluctance is understandable, given the city's historic efforts to attract a baseball franchise and its agreement requiring the Rays to play at downtown's Tropicana Field until 2027. But it is not realistic or defensible in the long run. The lease with the Rays should be used as a negotiating tool to reach an agreement to broaden the stadium search to include both counties, not as a leash to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg.
Without a detailed market analysis of specific stadium sites, it is far from certain what makes the most sense for the Rays and the Tampa Bay region. All sites are going to have benefits, such as being closer to the center of the area's population than the Trop. All will have drawbacks, such as environmental issues or traffic concerns. Allowing locations in both counties to be reviewed does not automatically mean the Rays are headed to Tampa. But it would mean that the chosen stadium site compared favorably to all of the possibilities, not just those in an artificially limited area in Pinellas.
Foster is headed in the right direction with his offer to amend the city's agreement with the Rays. His proposal to look just outside the city is a positive sign, even if it includes only land adjacent St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and Derby Lane on Gandy Boulevard. The Rays should accept the opening offer at face value and respond in good faith.
Ultimately, though, St. Petersburg needs to recognize the Rays are a regional franchise and that the stadium search requires a regional approach. A reasonable mayor and a savvy Rays ownership group ought to be able to negotiate a fair way to make that happen.