Despite the heartburn it causes St. Petersburg city officials, a community group examining options for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays is right to evaluate potential sites on both sides of the bay. Tampa Bay is one market, and the Rays are a regional franchise that has to draw fans from the entire area to be successful. The ultimate goal is to keep Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay, and that means finding the best site for a new stadium.
Progress Energy Florida CEO Jeff Lyash, chairman of A Baseball Community, says the panel is evaluating five potential sites: downtown St. Petersburg, the Gateway area north of downtown, the West Shore district in Tampa, downtown Tampa and the state fairgrounds in eastern Hillsborough. There is nothing wrong with that. All options should be on the table, and the community and the Rays should remain open-minded until the various alternatives come into sharper focus.
The debate over whether the Rays should remain in St. Petersburg or move to Tampa already is crackling on sports talk radio, but that is premature. Lyash says he is not in favor of ranking the five areas. The ABC group is not even looking at particular properties; it is examining the viability of five general areas. And as Lyash points out, there will be factors other than the number of people living within a 30-minute drive of each site that will help determine the best location for a new stadium.
For example, the Rays have a long-term lease to play in St. Petersburg. Tropicana Field is publicly owned, and it would be more expensive to buy a privately owned site for a new stadium. There is a dedicated revenue stream of St. Petersburg and Pinellas tax dollars that are being used to pay off the Trop now, and those dollars could be shifted toward a new stadium in St. Petersburg. There is no readily apparent public revenue source for a new stadium in Tampa or Hillsborough County, and no one expects the Rays owners to pay for a new stadium by themselves.
There are intangibles to consider as well. The current geographic balance of professional sports franchises, with the Rays in St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa, has some appeal. And the decadeslong effort by Pinellas County and St. Petersburg to build a stadium without a team, attract a baseball franchise and ultimately see the Rays begin play in 1998 counts for something.
It is important to take the long view. Rays president Matt Silverman should think twice before complaining again about midweek attendance as he did last week. Rays attendance is still significantly up over last year, and other teams are down. Unemployment is rising, and the economic recession is not easing. And while St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker does not like the ABC group looking outside the city, he should let it complete its work without interference. To have credibility, the group has to provide an objective review of all of the stadium options regardless of the political considerations.
To frame the stadium discussion as a fight between two sides of the bay, as it was in the 1980s, would be a serious mistake. The Tampa Bay region has grown bigger and matured. It has a Major League Baseball franchise with a strong ownership group and exciting players on the field. The battle for the Rays will ultimately not be between St. Petersburg and Tampa but between Tampa Bay and Charlotte and Las Vegas and Portland and . . .