St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's minor league approach to securing Tampa Bay's future in Major League Baseball diminishes the community and the elected office he holds. What's missing is the ambition, sophistication and creativity necessary to negotiate with the Tampa Bay Rays and build public support for a modern baseball stadium. In the absence of leadership from the mayor, business leaders, other elected officials and the Rays should engage and embrace a regional solution.
To his credit, Foster offered last year to allow the Rays to look within St. Petersburg and just outside the city limits for potential stadium sites. Since then, it's been all strikeouts and errors. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg reasonably wants to look at the entire market, including Tampa. Foster has refused, alternately snubbing and encouraging business leaders, discouraging public officials from talking, and threatening legal action. The mayor has generally treated the Rays as a courtroom adversary rather than a significant business that contributes to the civic and economic life of the entire region.
When the City Council finally pressed for answers, Foster's performance became more erratic. After publicly denying there was any plan involving the Rays and a stadium, he told surprised council members there was a plan but he could not discuss it in public. Then he met with them one on one, skirting the intent of the public meetings law, and blamed the media for any confusion. A column Foster wrote in the St. Petersburg Times last week alluded to potential lawsuits and secret strategies but acknowledged the city is working on no plans for a new stadium.
That leaves it to others to step up. The St. Petersburg City Council is off to a good start, scheduling a workshop for next month to review the city's long-term lease with the Rays. Next, the council could invite Sternberg to meet after the season for a public discussion on his views regarding outdated Tropicana Field and how to proceed.
The business community — including the Clutch Hitters and the area chambers of commerce — should continue their independent analyses of the stadium issue. They should keep emphasizing Tampa Bay is one market and that the Rays are a regional franchise.
Other local government leaders also should make their voices heard. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, Pinellas Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala and Hillsborough Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham should convene a regional meeting to discuss the future of baseball in the Tampa Bay area. Invite a few influential state legislators, such as Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, the next Florida House speaker. Heck, invite Foster. If the St. Petersburg mayor objects to the idea, let him sue.
While he is understandably frustrated, Sternberg should come off the sidelines. Allowing the Rays to study potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for a limited time is worth something. Sternberg should make a reasonable offer to St. Petersburg after the season and ask the City Council to vote on it or make a counteroffer. He also should open the Rays' financial books to confirm that the franchise is not making mountains of money.
It's time for others to fill this leadership vacuum and advance the discussion about a new baseball stadium. Foster said last week he is "still getting his mayor legs." He was elected 22 months ago, so spring training at City Hall is long over. If politics were baseball, by now the mayor would have been sent down to the Durham Bulls.