The Tampa Bay Rays have an important doubleheader coming up in the next few days. Team officials will meet Thursday with the Hillsborough County Commission to discuss the need for a new stadium, followed by a similar meeting Tuesday with the Pinellas County Commission. This is an important opportunity to open lines of communication, analyze the Tampa Bay market and establish a united effort to keep Major League Baseball.
The commission chairmen, conservative Republican Ken Hagan in Hillsborough and progressive Democrat Ken Welch in Pinellas, demonstrated their leadership and regional focus by extending the invitations to the Rays. Both are skilled in leading thoughtful discussions that raise appropriate issues without injecting as much emotion and drama as some of their colleagues. They can keep the focus of the conversation with Rays officials on the Tampa Bay market, baseball economics and other factors that more than justify the team's quest for a new stadium to replace Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. In another encouraging sign, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is expected to attend both commission meetings.
Don't expect too much from these initial discussions. This is not about identifying a particular site for a new stadium or specific revenue streams for paying for one. This is about educating the public, building relationships and exploring general options. The Hillsborough commissioners will be particularly mindful of St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's foolish threats of lawsuits. Pinellas County owns the Trop and helps pay the stadium debt with resort taxes, so commissioners there should have more latitude.
The Rays need a new stadium soon if they are to remain in the Tampa Bay market. Tropicana Field is outdated and not up to current Major League standards. The Rays continue to rank near the bottom in attendance despite fielding an entertaining, competitive team and playing in the nation's 14th largest television market. While the team's lease for Tropicana Field does not expire until 2027, the main stadium bonds will be paid off by 2016. The reality is that the Rays have played at the Trop for a far longer time, 15 years, than they have left to play there.
By refusing to acknowledge that reality, Foster has done St. Petersburg and the region a terrible disservice and wasted the last three years. Every year that goes by without action, the city loses bargaining power. The mayor has refused to allow the Rays to look for the best stadium site in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. He has isolated himself as the conversations expand, and he has helped create a standoff that benefits no one.
The discussions with the county commissions should be helpful in broadening the support for a regional approach to preserving a regional asset. Sternberg can advance the stadium debate by explaining how a modern stadium in a more central location will improve attendance and secure the franchise's long-term future in Tampa Bay. He should offer St. Petersburg an incentive to let the team look at stadium sites in both counties for a limited period. He also should open the team's financial books to verify this is about making the Rays viable and competitive — not enormously profitable.
The county commissions are stepping into the void left by St. Petersburg's intransigence and creating an opportunity for a candid public discussion. They are baby steps, but they should lead to something even bigger.