The disappointing end to the Tampa Bay Rays' 2014 season at least clears the way for team officials and regional leaders to work with a new sense of urgency on keeping the franchise in the bay area. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Rays president Matt Silverman met last week. This week, Hillsborough County commissioners appointed a new city-county group to work with the team on potential stadium sites after the Rays get permission from St. Petersburg to look in both counties. These are all good steps that reflect the region's determination to keep its Major League Baseball franchise.
The examination of possible sites for a new stadium cannot come soon enough for the bay area or the Rays, as another year clicks away toward 2027 and the end of the team's lease at Tropicana Field. Meanwhile, the Rays finished last in per game attendance among the 30 teams.
Kriseman's chief of staff said this week that the season's end should clear the way for more substantive talks, hopefully resulting in an agreement that would allow the Rays to explore potential sites for a new stadium in Hillsborough and Pinellas. That arrangement only makes sense. It would bring into focus the resources and expectations that both sides of the bay must consider, and provide the Rays with a much clearer picture of the entire market.
St. Petersburg officials hope a deal can be worked out by year's end, which prompted the Hillsborough commission on Wednesday to designate the Tampa Sports Authority as the contact point on its side of the bay. The sports authority is a logical choice; its board includes appointees from the county and the city of Tampa, and the agency already operates Raymond James Stadium.
But the TSA will be more of a front; any baseball stadium deal in Tampa will almost certainly involve public money, regulatory and planning considerations and any number of other concessions by city and county governments in Hillsborough. The principal players won't be the sports authority members but Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan, who conceived the idea for a working group.
Transparency isn't Hagan's strong suit, and he will need to work openly throughout this process. Hillsborough's move at this early stage, though, is more about positioning as St. Petersburg and the Rays look to open up the search, and about reclaiming some leverage from Buckhorn, who has cultivated the notion of a baseball stadium in downtown Tampa.
But the surge of interest on both sides of the bay on breaking the stadium stalemate is encouraging. It comes as local governments in both counties are fast being pressured by other interests to allocate tax revenue streams that could become available for a baseball stadium. And it's happening just as Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is charting a massive redevelopment in downtown Tampa's Channel District that will shape the prospects for any stadium in the urban core. This stadium conversation is long overdue, but it finally appears that all sides are poised to take the necessary steps to get moving after years of delays.