The St. Petersburg City Council delivered a message of opportunity and warning to the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday. By a 7-1 vote, the council let negotiations go forward on a new stadium and downtown development plan, with the possibility that a question will be on the November ballot.
It was the right decision and it let the Rays' owners know the challenges they face to win ultimate support from the council. Only council member Herb Polson wilted under the pressure, saying he was ready to call a halt to the process before all of the facts are in.
Now an accelerated schedule of information-gathering and decisionmaking should finally clarify whether the proposal deserves a place on the ballot. A negative vote Thursday would have sent an unnecessarily harsh message to the Rays that the city isn't willing to give the team a fair hearing. Within a couple of weeks the city could pick one of two development proposals and begin negotiations on a price for the Tropicana Field site. By mid July the financial details of how the city, county and team would pay for the new $450-million stadium should be firmed up. And in August the council will decide if voters should be asked to approve or deny a new stadium on the Al Lang Field site.
Council members also expressed concern that the city can get from here to there is such a short time. Typical of the comments was this by member Jim Kennedy: "Sufficient facts have not been presented at this time." Member Bill Dudley said he has three main concerns: "Money, money, money."
On that point, the city staff reported that even after the sale of Tropicana property, there would be a revenue gap of at least $1.5-million to pay off existing bond debt. That's not an insurmountable sum, but would be a good place to start negotiations with the team or developer.
On another important stadium matter, the council wisely shot down a sneak attack by newly appointed member Karl Nurse. Earlier in the meeting, Nurse proposed a competing referendum question that would have rezoned Al Lang Field and prohibited development on the site. Had he succeeded in getting that measure on the ballot, voters would have been faced with questions that could have negated each other and left more division and bitter feelings in the community.
Nurse's motion died from lack of a second, but not before his colleagues got in some zingers. Before his appointment in April, Nurse had assured the council he was not a stealth member of an antistadium group. On Thursday, member Wengay Newton questioned his colleague's sincerity on that point, calling Nurse "a mole" and suggesting Nurse joined the council just to scuttle stadium plans.
Dudley dubbed Nurse's effort "a knee-jerk reaction" to vocal critics of the stadium, and boiled the issue down to its essence. "If both of these (referendum questions) pass, we are going to be in deep sheep dip." That's obviously a place council members don't want to be, and they gave Nurse's half-baked idea a deservedly quick rejection.
All in all, the council acted in the best interests of their city Thursday. The Rays are an important member of the community and deserve a full hearing on their admittedly ambitious plan. Now team owners, council members and city residents will have some time to do their homework and come to a thoughtful decision.