TAMPA BAY RAYS owner Stuart Sternberg provided constructive guidance Monday by making clear he is not interested in a new stadium in downtown St. Petersburg and wants to consider other sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
The continued commitment to the region as a major league market is reassuring, and now the Tampa Bay area should engage in a public conversation on the best location for a new stadium. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council should open the door for those talks to begin, stop threatening lawsuits and start thinking more creatively.
Sternberg makes a compelling argument that securing the future of the franchise requires building a stadium in a more central location than downtown St. Petersburg. High-profile promotions, affordable prices and a winning record on the field have not produced even average major league attendance. Tropicana Field is outdated and the economic recession has hit the area particularly hard, factors in the Rays ranking 23rd of 30 teams in attendance this season. Despite those influences, the Rays have concluded downtown St. Petersburg is too far from the center of their regional fan base and the area's business activity. It is not an unreasonable conclusion, although it is hard to let go of dreams of a state-of-the-art downtown stadium with a view of the bay.
Now attention should turn to three other sites named by the ABC Coalition, the civic group that studied the issue: the Gateway area in mid Pinellas, and the West Shore and downtown areas in Tampa. They are more centrally located, and they each have benefits and drawbacks. That is why moving this discussion forward will require a broader conversation involving voices from throughout Tampa Bay. From specific locations to funding to the inclusion of mass transit to possible voter referendums, there is much to sort out in a relatively short time.
For St. Petersburg, there is some natural disappointment in Sternberg's frank assessment. The city spent decades pursuing a major league franchise, and its leaders in the '80s boldly built the dome even without a team. That gamble eventually paid off when the expansion Rays began playing in 1998. But now Foster and the council members should be just as creative as their predecessors in coming up with a new stadium proposal for the Gateway area. The city still holds several advantages, including the lease with the Rays and an existing revenue stream that could be shifted from the Trop to a new stadium. Sternberg's announcement is not a defeat; it is an opportunity for bold leadership on a regional scale.
First, Foster and the City Council have to drop threats of lawsuits and let the Rays participate in regional talks that explore sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough. Sternberg said he is not interested in looking at other St. Petersburg sites without evaluating them alongside others outside the city. The city ought to be able to negotiate a reasonable time frame for those talks to take place and limit the search to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The longer St. Petersburg waits to engage, the more it loses in negotiating leverage as the Trop's debt drops and the years left on the lease decline.
Sternberg spoke responsibly and clearly about the Rays' need for a new stadium outside downtown St. Petersburg. He did not make threats, and he did not make demands. He left plenty of room for various options to be explored. Now the city needs to clear the way for that exploration and a regionwide conversation. The Rays are a tremendous regional asset, and the region needs to collectively agree on the best site for a new stadium that will secure the franchise's long-term future in Tampa Bay.