One day after a disappointing end to the Tampa Bay Rays' season, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster sent a friendly invitation Thursday to team owner Stuart Sternberg to talk about a new stadium. It is the logical next step following the unveiling of a developer's stadium proposal last week, and the time is right to break the impasse and move forward. Sternberg should accept the offer, because it is up to him to make the next move.
There has been precious little talking between the city and the Rays the last couple of years. Foster insists the Rays can only look at potential sites within St. Petersburg or nearby in Pinellas. Sternberg reasonably counters that the Rays are a regional franchise and must examine sites within both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. And there the deadlock has remained.
The passing of time has not strengthened the city's hand. Sternberg's ownership group has won praise within baseball, and the team has been successful on the field despite this week's disappointment of missing the playoffs. Yet the Rays are last this year in attendance and were next to last the year before. The numbers are making it harder to argue for a new stadium in downtown St. Petersburg, even if there was political support to build one. And every year ticking by benefits the Rays, because that means a year less on the team's long-term lease with the city to play in outdated Tropicana Field.
More than two years have passed since the ABC Coalition, a Pinellas-based civic group, analyzed areas for stadiums in Pinellas and Hillsborough but was brushed aside by Foster. Finally, the leadership vacuum began to be filled as the St. Petersburg City Council and the county commissions in Pinellas and Hillsborough became more engaged. Developer Darryl LeClair's presentation of a proposed stadium for the Carillon development in mid Pinellas is the first serious public alternative, and there may be others down the road. But Foster was smart to use the opportunity to invite Sternberg to talk.
LeClair's proposal, regardless of its shortcomings and its failure to suggest any financing, deserves a credible examination and thorough response from the Rays. That doesn't mean Sternberg should abandon his position that the Rays need to look in both Hillsborough and Pinellas. Among the viable options:
• Agree to examine LeClair's proposal in return for looking in both counties for a limited period. St. Petersburg's lease would remain in effect.
• Offer a financial incentive to the city, either a cash payment or benefits tied to stadium expenses.
• Outline how the Rays could help test the market for redevelopment of part of the Tropicana site.
• Open the franchise's books to verify its financial condition.
• Suggest that the Rays could move spring training back to St. Petersburg if a new stadium wound up in Hillsborough County.
If the goal is to keep Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay, there are ways to move this discussion forward. Foster has at least opened the door, and Sternberg should seize the opportunity.