As the center spotlight in the quest to keep baseball in this region shifts from the Tampa Bay Rays to a group of business and civic leaders, the effort will need to be transparent and broad in both representation and vision. Progress Energy Florida president Jeff Lyash, who will lead the effort, already has spoken positively about the need to involve people from both ends of Pinellas County and both sides of Tampa Bay. That's critical in building sustained fan and corporate support for a professional sports franchise that, just like the NFL's Buccaneers, must draw from the entire region.
Those same people can also bring new perspectives to the stadium debate itself. The Rays, by their own admission, did not aggressively explore potential sites outside downtown St. Petersburg. That led to some familiar complaints from county commissioners and North Pinellas fans about access. In turn, Lyash already has signaled his willingness to look beyond St. Petersburg.
The group should review all of the options, but it will find the alternatives are not as easy as some commissioners pretend. A broader search will immediately face the reality that little vacant land remains in Florida's most densely populated county. The few remaining large parcels in mid Pinellas could produce some eye-popping cost estimates. They each would come with their own drawbacks, from the need for infrastructure and road improvements to environmental concerns.
Other considerations have been fairly raised by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. Baseball may never have come to this region but for the enormous risks the city undertook. That history should be respected. And the Rays' long-term lease to play in Tropicana Field is with the city. From St. Louis to Pittsburgh, the more recently built baseball stadiums are part of the vibrant downtown fabric and not in suburban locations surrounded by acres of paved parking. A convincing case for building a new stadium on any specific site outside downtown St. Petersburg has yet to be made.
A St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce task force has reminded this region of the enormous stakes and looked favorably upon the Rays' pitch for a downtown waterfront stadium. The task force hired PricewaterhouseCoopers for an independent analysis. That study concluded the team contributes $111.9-million a year to the Pinellas economy and that a new stadium would add another $59-million. Quibble about the precision of such projections, but the scale of the impact is undeniable.
Also not in question is the potential for loss. Chamber president John Long says he has been told by counterparts that other cities are just waiting for Tampa Bay to fail. "We should not kid ourselves," Long says. "There are other communities that would like to have our team. And they would not worry about cost."
Ironically, the Rays' decision to cancel a November stadium referendum has produced a new type of momentum, and Lyash's coalition should build on it in a public process. The group will encounter some of the scars and combatants from a political history stretching several decades, but it should also be able to tap into an emerging political consensus. The Rays belong in Tampa Bay, but they will need broader support and, at some point in the not so distant future, a new stadium to keep them here.