It's time to start talking and quit stalling on initiating public talks about a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. A commonsense legal opinion released Tuesday gives the Hillsborough County Commission all the reassurance it needs to have an open discussion about the future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay and stadium options. Pinellas County commissioners sound interested in holding a similar conversation, and they should invite St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council to participate. If Foster continues to bury his head in the sand, the area's elected officials have an obligation to go on without him.
Hillsborough County Commission chairman Ken Hagan asked the county attorney for the legal opinion to make sure commissioners would be on solid ground in talking to the Rays about remaining in Tampa Bay. As Hagan noted, every year that goes by with no discussion clicks another year off the Tropicana Field lease and makes it easier and less expensive for the Rays to leave the area. Foster's threats to sue anyone who talks to the Rays about the future reflect a pinched reading of the lease and a lack of appreciation for the consensus-building it will take to keep the franchise in Tampa Bay.
The county's legal opinion states the obvious. The Rays' lease with St. Petersburg does not prevent team officials from discussing their long-term interests and goals regarding a new stadium. Nobody is talking about negotiating another specific stadium deal or interfering with the city's contract. Besides, as the legal opinion points out, St. Petersburg would have a hard time proving damages if it is paid for its remaining debt service on the lease and other economic losses if the Rays leave. Nobody is talking about the Rays leaving in the middle of the night, sneaking across the Howard Frankland Bridge and stiffing the city.
It's two years and counting since Foster backed himself into a corner and refused to negotiate further with the Rays. The mayor said the team could explore stadium sites just outside the city limits in mid Pinellas; the team predictably wants to look at the market as a whole and both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The Rays have understandably grown more frustrated, and county commissioners on both sides of the bay and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn have signaled they are ready to look for solutions. They understand the clock is ticking, the cost for the Rays to move from Tampa Bay is dropping and the team isn't likely to be playing in the outdated Trop in 2020, much less until the lease expires in 2027.
In case anybody missed it, the Rays' local television ratings are up and the team ranks 29th out of 30 Major League teams in average attendance. The Rays want to talk. The political leaders of both Pinellas and Hillsborough want to talk — except for one who has isolated himself. It's time to start working toward building a consensus for a new stadium and exploring all of the possibilities, with or without the St. Petersburg mayor.