Last July, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and the Tampa Bay Rays agreed to set aside discussions about a new stadium until after the season. Midway through another season this July, more voices are talking about the need to replace outdated Tropicana Field, from business leaders on both sides of the bay to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to Rays manager Joe Maddon to ESPN announcers. It seems everyone recognizes a sense of urgency to get serious and think regionally except Foster, who hasn't budged in a year. That's not good for St. Petersburg taxpayers or the future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.
Foster refuses to accept the reality that Tampa Bay is one market and that the Rays and the community need to explore potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The mayor's offer last year to let the Rays look at sites outside St. Petersburg in mid Pinellas was a positive first step, but it did not go far enough. It's not reasonable to declare Hillsborough off limits, just as it would not be reasonable for the Rays to rule out Pinellas County without looking at the entire market. The Tampa Bay region has matured beyond such narrow thinking on issues ranging from drinking water to transit to higher education, and professional sports requires the same kind of broader vision.
Foster pointed out last week during the dustup over the Trop's shortcomings that he is the mayor of St. Petersburg, not Tampa Bay. But his refusal to compromise with the Rays is no way to treat any prominent business, and it is not in the long-term financial interests of city taxpayers. Every month that clicks off the calendar with no movement is a month closer to paying off the stadium bonds and to the 2027 expiration of the lease. Every month that goes by with no action costs the city leverage and makes it less expensive for the Rays to break the lease or, more likely, starve the team financially and stall for more time.
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has invested in the Trop and in the franchise, and the ownership group wins national praise for building a competitive team in a smaller market. This region has had its fill of less committed, less competent owners of professional sports franchises. While Sternberg is not the type to go through the hoops and lawsuits to move the Rays to another market, he is frustrated by the stadium impasse. It is plausible he could sell the franchise in a year or two to someone who would pick that fight.
Is this the way the city of St. Petersburg treats high-profile businesses that have invested in the community and want to stay in the Tampa Bay region?
It should not be this difficult to break this deadlock. Foster should negotiate an agreement with the Rays that would allow them to study stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for a specific time period in return for compensation that recognizes St. Petersburg's civic and financial commitment to baseball. The Rays would have to commit to thoroughly considering sites in both counties, and the city still would hold the Trop lease as its trump card.
When he ran for mayor, Foster said he envisioned construction on a new stadium could start in St. Petersburg by 2016. Two years have passed with little movement, and even that time frame seems out of reach now. It's time to stop leaving the talking to sports broadcasters and for Foster and Sternberg to step up to the plate.