ST. PETERSBURG'S RESPONSE to the Tampa Bay Rays' invitation to begin discussions about a new stadium is predictably parochial and unnecessarily pinched. Limiting the search for a new location to within the city is too restrictive and fails to recognize that ensuring the success of a regional franchise requires looking for the best spot on both sides of the bay. But this is only the first inning of a long discussion, and there is time for more enlightened leadership to emerge.
Mayor Bill Foster took several steps in the right direction Thursday. He recognized the Rays are a "regional asset.'' He is prepared to begin stadium discussions with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, and he is willing to look at locations outside downtown in the Gateway area. All of those are positive indications that Foster is willing to negotiate in good faith.
But the mayor and the City Council are going to have to think more creatively. Sternberg's offer to consider St. Petersburg sites outside downtown as long as other locations in Pinellas and Hillsborough are in the mix is entirely reasonable. To artificially place limits on solving a regional issue limits the chances of making the most informed decision on a stadium site.
St. Petersburg should not fear a more open search. There may be property in the Gateway area just outside the city limits that should be considered. The city also holds several advantages, including a lease with the Rays that runs until 2027 and tax money that now pays for Tropicana Field but could be redirected toward a new stadium. Tampa and Hillsborough County do not have piles of money for a baseball stadium at the moment. And there will be traffic issues, environmental questions and other factors to consider at any potential site. That is why all options on both sides of the bay should be included in a sophisticated analysis.
The one thing Foster and the City Council should not do is follow the narrow-minded advice of City Attorney John Wolfe. He warned against getting in a competition with Tampa and told council members to limit their comments in anticipation of a legal fight. Memo to Wolfe: This is not 1986. Tampa and St. Petersburg are not competing to build a stadium and land a team; they should be working together to keep the team Tampa Bay has. That will require more conversation, not less. Council members Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton are right to push for a more open discussion.
Thursday was Foster's first pitch. This should be his next one: We have a lease, but we are willing to allow other sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough to be considered along with St. Petersburg's best option. If the best site for a new stadium turns out to be outside the city, we expect some compensation for early termination of the lease. And if the Rays even glance outside Tampa Bay, we will see them in court.
Ultimately, Foster has to choose how he wants to be remembered. Does he want to be the mayor whose initiative and creativity kept the Rays in Tampa Bay? Or does he want to be the mayor whose lack of vision drove the franchise to Charlotte or Las Vegas or New Jersey?