As the public discussion over a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays advances, it should be clear to St. Petersburg officials by now that they need to become engaged. Waving around a long-term lease for an outdated Tropicana Field and hinting at litigation against anyone who talks about another stadium site is not productive. Instead of warning about meddling by others, Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council should be participating in the brainstorming to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay.
With or without St. Petersburg, the conversation is going to move along. To his credit, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan has asked the ABC Coalition to present its report on stadium options to the commission. The Pinellas County Commission is expected to do the same, and other local governments throughout the Tampa Bay area ought to get out their invitations. For Foster and the St. Petersburg City Council to refuse to publicly hear from the civic group that gathered so much valuable information and hide behind the lease only isolates the city and looks foolish.
While the Rays' agreement with the city to play in the Trop in downtown St. Petersburg does not expire until 2027, it is a safe bet they will be playing somewhere else years earlier. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who was in town this week to make his annual pitch for a new stadium, knows it. So do the Rays. And so does the private sector. The preliminary maneuvering for possible stadium sites in downtown Tampa and the Florida State Fairgrounds in east Hillsborough is encouraging, because it indicates private property owners and developers recognize the considerable value of having a Major League Baseball franchise in Tampa Bay. The public and private sectors in Pinellas should be just as imaginative as they explore location and financing options for a new stadium.
The ABC Coalition preferred three areas for a new stadium over the fairgrounds and the Trop site: downtown Tampa and the West Shore area in Hillsborough, and the Gateway area in mid Pinellas. But St. Petersburg holds some significant advantages, including the lease, the publicly owned Trop site, a revenue stream dedicated to the stadium and a historic commitment to luring Major League Baseball to the area that should be recognized. While the ABC Coalition has laid the groundwork for more discussion, there is much to be done before identifying the best location for a new stadium. For example, someone needs to pay for a more definitive market study that would take months to complete.
The Rays need to make their stadium desires public, and St. Petersburg needs to get in the game. It would be a serious miscalculation to sit quietly as the conversations continue or to pit the city against the rest of the region. This is not a rerun of the divisive 1980s' stadium debate between St. Petersburg against Tampa. The Tampa Bay area has a coveted major league franchise and needs to think regionally to ensure the team's long-term future.