Hillsborough officials keep door open for the Rays. But is Tampa still in the game?

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor says she’s ready to chat when the team is. But her fellow elected officials in Hillsborough County think it’s time to reach out to the Rays despite the team’s Montreal plans.
Published July 12
Updated July 12

TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor has been busy hosting the Warrior Games, rebooting the holiday fireworks show and building bridges to minority businesses in her first weeks on the job, but she’s kept mum about one burning issue — a new stadium site for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Other local leaders as well as the Rays have had plenty to say about who takes the next turn in the limbo line of a stadium search now that the Rays have shocked baseball with the announcement they want to split the home season between here and Montreal.

READ MORE: Rays’ Montreal news stuns Tampa, Hillsborough officials.

This week, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said Rays owner Stu Sternberg would have to pay for the privilege of speaking formally with other suitors, pointing to the team’s use agreement with his city to play at Tropicana Field until 2027.

And Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan recently reiterated his position that the use agreement does not preclude the Rays from speaking with other potential host communities.

On Friday, Hagan said it might be time to invite the Rays over for another chat — like he did in January 2013 when Sternberg spoke to the Hillsborough County Commission.

Castor, who took office May 1, has limited herself to statements expressing hope and confidence in a Tampa Bay solution.

“Mayor Castor has said time and time again that she believes Rays baseball belongs in Tampa Bay,” said spokeswoman Ashley Bauman. “She’s ready and open to conversations with the Rays when they want to talk.”

READ MORE: Three mayors. One owner. No deal. St. Pete’s futile history with the Rays.

Castor may be keeping her eye on what her counterpart across the bay has in mind.

In 2013, when Hagan invited Sternberg to talk to Hillsborough commissioners, Bill Foster — St. Petersburg mayor at the time — threatened to sue. He didn't.

But would his successor?

“Mayor Kriseman and our city attorney have contemplated all scenarios,” spokesman Ben Kirby said in email to the Times. “Action will be taken should there be an occurrence of tortious interference or noncompliance with the use agreement.”

READ MORE: Which do the Rays want: a split season or a new ballpark?

Many in Hillsborough at first questioned how Sternberg could speak with Montreal when Tampa is barred from discussions with his team. A three-year window for talks across the bay, granted by St. Petersburg, closed in December with a failed proposal for a stadium in Ybor City.

But in the end, everyone seems to agree the Rays have not violated their use agreement in their dealings so far with a Montreal group headed by Stephen Bronfman, an heir to the Seagram's liquor fortune.

Still, some local leaders think it would be a good idea to restart a dialogue between Hillsborough and the Rays.

Hagan wouldn't commit to extending the Rays a formal invitation. He said he first wants to see a presentation by Irwin Raij, the New York City attorney who is working on the county's behalf toward a stadium deal. Raij is scheduled to give a presentation Aug. 7. He didn't return a call seeking comment.

“Perhaps it's time to consider doing the same thing we did in ’13, which was extremely productive,” Hagan said Friday. “It might be good to have them come over again.”

Officially, the Tampa Sports Authority, which pays Raij, is the lead agency on the Hillsborough side of the Rays stadium play. But no one from the Rays called Authority CEO Eric Hart either before or after the Montreal bombshell dropped. Hart said the agency would wait and see if Sternberg or the team reaches out to them, but they don't plan to test the use agreement.

READ MORE: Did the Rays’ talks with Montreal violate the Tropicana Field lease?

Tampa City Council chairman Luis Viera also would like to see more talk locally, too. An impasse stretching back more than a decade is drawing to a close one way or another, Viera said, with the St. Petersburg agreement ending in 2027.

“The more of a dialogue on this issue, the better,” Viera said. “It would be a positive step.”

Viera said he hasn’t yet considered inviting Sternberg to speak at a Tampa City Council meeting.

Still, he said, if he or another council member decide to extend the invitation, it might yield something unexpected. Or at the very least it keeps open the lines of communication, he said.

Most of Viera’s constituents in north Tampa and New Tampa aren't happy with the plan to play halfsies with Montreal. It might help the Rays placate a restive region to go public again, he said.

“It's something I think would be a positive gesture,” Viera said.

“The overwhelming response to this has not been positive, but certainly it’s always good to talk.”

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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