Contrary to the rhetoric in the St. Petersburg mayor's race, the Tampa Bay Rays mean something to this community. As Major League Baseball attendance nationwide declined this year, the Rays' attendance increased. With the unemployment rate above 10 percent and the team playing below expectations, the Rays still drew 3.3 percent more fans for a total of nearly 1.9 million. Yet Kathleen Ford treats the team — and anyone who wants to talk about a new stadium — as potential defendants.
Once again this week, Ford made it clear she sees no new stadium in the Rays' future and will sue the team if it tries to leave before its lease is up in 2027. She questions the franchise's economic impact and even accuses a community group examining possible stadium options with interfering with the lease. Her approach insults community leaders, public officials and baseball fans who spent decades working to bring a Major League Baseball franchise here.
A year ago, Tampa Bay was thrilled by the Rays' drive to the World Series. Now the franchise's long-term future is just another political wedge issue in the mayor's race. Missing from the discussion is the value of the team's competent ownership group, the franchise's economic impact of $130 million and an acknowledgement that Tropicana Field is outdated. It's a safe bet the Rays will not be playing in the Trop in 2027 — or even 2017 if plans for a new stadium are not set — regardless of what the lease says.
A Baseball Community, the civic-minded coalition led by former Progress Energy Florida CEO Jeff Lyash, has gathered valuable information about the financing and construction of stadiums in other cities, the characteristics of Tampa Bay fans and other market data. It has identified five potential locations for a new stadium, including Tropicana Field, mid Pinellas and three areas in Hillsborough County. It is not focusing on specific sites, and it has reasonably concluded it would be impractical to renovate the Trop. But it has no authority or standing to negotiate a lease or secure a stadium site. Yet in Ford's pinched view of the team's lease and the city charter, everything about the ABC group is illegal.
Bill Foster has a broader vision. He was the first to suggest a community group be formed as an earlier Rays' proposal for a waterfront stadium faltered. He recognizes the value of public input and acknowledges the reality that the next mayor needs to talk to the Rays about a new stadium. He has said he envisions construction on a new stadium could start as early as 2016, after the economy recovers and bonds on the Trop are paid off.
But Foster recognizes Ford has poisoned the stadium debate and that she could turn his reasonable approach against him in the midst of an economic recession. He talked more about the lease this week and emphasized that voters would have to approve any plan for a new stadium involving public money. Why a referendum would be needed to continue to direct money spent on the Trop now toward a new stadium on the same publicly owned site is debatable, but that is a question for another day.
The ABC coalition should continue its valuable work. It should not be swayed by Mayor Rick Baker's complaints that it is examining options outside the city, and it should not be intimidated by Ford's legal threats. But St. Petersburg voters who appreciate all that went into becoming a major-league city have a clear choice.
Foster would work with the Rays and build public consensus for a new stadium that would secure the team's long-term future. Ford would force the team to look elsewhere and file lawsuits.