Chuck Sykes nicely sums up the potential consequences of the standoff over a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
"This is a big, complicated, emotionally charged topic,'' said the president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which will spend next year studying the financing of baseball stadiums. "It will never be solved unless we can continue to have a conversation. If we don't, something real negative could happen and we will be sitting around looking for someone to blame.''
We would not have to look long or far. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and city attorney John Wolfe have built a wall of silence, undermined earlier efforts at engaging in a public discussion and threatened to sue virtually anyone who refuses to wear their parochial blinders. The Rays reasonably want to look at all of the stadium options in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and it is unrealistic for the city to keep hiding behind its long-term lease and expect the Rays to remain for years in outdated Tropicana Field.
Sykes and the Tampa Chamber offer a more nuanced, constructive approach. The chamber will focus on financing options for a new stadium and explore the possibilities of relying on a mix of public and private money. It will stop short of discussing particular stadium sites to avoid setting off more alarm bells. Sykes also wants Pinellas business leaders to join in the effort and for Foster to be an ally, not an adversary.
At the same time, Foster and the Rays ownership need to end their standoff next year over the examination of potential stadium sites. There are ways to negotiate a reasonable agreement that would give the Rays a specific time frame to study locations only in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in return for some accommodation to the city — a break on paying stadium operational costs, for example.
New stadiums do not get built overnight. It often takes years to choose a site, arrange financing, design a facility, build public support and complete construction. That's why it's important to start the process now while the economy recovers. The Tampa Chamber's commendable efforts reflect that the Rays are a regional asset that may be lost if there is not a regional approach to keeping the franchise in Tampa Bay. It's time for Foster and other St. Petersburg officials to recognize that as well.