A community group studying possibilities for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays should not be intimidated by a pre-emptive strike from St. Petersburg City Hall. It's understandable that the city wants to remind the world that the Rays have an agreement to play in outdated Tropicana Field until 2027. But the Rays' success depends on support throughout Tampa Bay and beyond, and the ABC Coalition should continue to think regionally as it looks at all of the options.
A letter written to the coalition chairman earlier this month by St. Petersburg development director Rick Mussett asks that the group give "appropriate respect" to the current use agreement between the city and the Rays for the Trop. He also suggests the group should not get additional information from the Rays if it continues its work after releasing its draft report in the coming weeks. Translation: Quit studying possible stadium sites outside St. Petersburg or else.
The coalition should ignore the implied threats. It already has gathered valuable information about stadiums around the country, stadium financing options and Tampa Bay's demographics. It has reasonably concluded it would be unfeasible to renovate the dome and that a new stadium should have a retractable roof. The draft report recommends five potential areas for a new stadium: the Tropicana Field site, the Gateway area in mid Pinellas (portions of which are within the city limits), the West Shore area in Tampa, downtown Tampa and the state fairgrounds in Hillsborough County. The coalition is not recommending one particular area or parcel of land, and its fact-finding should help inform a broader public debate.
St. Petersburg has no business threatening the ABC Coalition or restricting its review. This is a community group of volunteers, not a predatory city looking to steal the Rays. It cannot buy land, own a team or negotiate a deal for the Rays' ownership. And let's remember that the group was created at the request of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker — and one of its broader goals is to find ways to build more public and corporate support for the Rays beyond the city. A full, objective airing of possible stadium sites both inside and outside St. Petersburg only gets more Tampa Bay residents involved in the debate and vested in the franchise's long-term success here.
The stadium debate will take time to play out, and St. Petersburg holds several important cards. It has the lease agreement with the Rays. It has the publicly owned Trop site, eliminating the need to buy property for a new stadium. It has an existing revenue stream dedicated to paying off the stadium bonds, and that revenue could be redirected toward a new stadium. And the city and the county have decades invested in the pursuit and support of a baseball franchise. All of those factors should weigh in the city's favor when decision time comes. But that decision will not be made by the ABC Coalition — and it will be better informed by the coalition's work.
The Rays are a regional franchise, regardless of their mailing address, and the goal remains keeping the team in Tampa Bay. When the coalition completes its work, it can hold its first community forum in St. Petersburg. And then it should travel to Clearwater and Tampa and Sarasota and Brooksville and Brandon and New Port Richey and …