TAMPA — City Council member Charlie Miranda doesn’t like seeing tax dollars flow into sports stadiums. He famously wore black after a levy was passed in 1996 to build Raymond James Stadium.
When he learned the Tampa Bay Rays announced it has permission from Major League Baseball to explore playing half their future home games in Montreal, Miranda laughed out loud.
“How much more can they do to screw two cities?” he said.
The reaction from political leaders across the governments of Tampa and Hillsborough on Thursday ranged from worry to optimism to resignation.
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Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who had blasted St. Petersburg’s mayor for refusing to allow Tampa and Hillsborough to rejoin the stadium conversation, said he got a phone call alerting him of the news just before it broke.
Hagan said it underscores his point that low attendance and inaction will push the Rays to consider leaving the bay area.
“Today’s news only confirms the concerns I shared yesterday and that’s why I was so direct and candid, because this issue is serious,” Hagan said. “I do feel that Tampa Bay is perilously close to losing the Rays to another city.”
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Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, who publicly backed Hagan’s criticism of Kriseman, said he was taken by surprise by the team’s announcement.
“I mean, what can you say? No, I didn’t know,” Merrill said. “We’ve worked with them all this time in good faith, but I have to find out more information about their plan before making any statements.”
Ron Christaldi, an attorney and former Greater Tampa Chamber chairman who leads the Rays 2020 initiative to find the team a home in Tampa, said he remains confident the Tampa Bay region can find a stadium solution.
“I have a lot of respect for (Rays owner Stu Sternberg) and I applaud his continual efforts to keep the Rays here,” Christaldi said. “But as a community, I think we need to come together. Anything less than the Rays being here full time is a loss for the community. I believe in this place and I believe we can support the Rays full time.”
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman agreed that there needs to be a regional solution, sort of.
“I mean really, my very first reaction was that they probably have gotten tired of the fight,” she said. “But we have to attack this. We have to at least do – something – to help keep this team here.”
The problem, Murman said, is she’s not sure what role Hillsborough would play in finding a regional solution: “Really it’s in the city of St. Petersburg’s court right now and it’s not really our issue.”
That’s because the Rays’ three-year agreement with St. Petersburg that allowed the team to explore a Tampa stadium expired on Dec. 31, 2018. There has been no movement since on the proposed Ybor City stadium site, as the Rays supposedly re-focused their stadium search in St. Petersburg.
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Murman doused any hopes that Tampa-Hillsborough might re-enter the stadium conversation.
“The public subsidy issue is a big issue, and it’s going to keep on being a big issue as we go forward,” she said. “But the truth is there is no appetite in Hillsborough County to use public tax dollars to build a stadium. I think the team realizes that …
“The taxpayers in Hillsborough County just don’t want it. The citizens resoundingly have said that. And I guess if somebody is willing to risk their political future and go against a very strong sentiment among the citizens of this county, it’s possible we could cobble four votes together and change out position on that. But it would be a stretch.”
Tampa City Council chairman Luis Viera agreed that the announcement meant a “downward trajectory” for the dream of one day bringing baseball back to Cigar City.
“Whoa,” Viera said after learning the news from a Times reporter in a City Hall hallway. “That’s something that gives you a lot of pause.”
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Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who drew Kriseman’s ire when she said the day after her election that Tampa should be the Rays’ new home, remained optimistic that the team will stay.
“Our region demands a Major League Baseball team, and I look forward to working with the Rays leadership to find a way to keep this team at home where they belong,” she said in a statement.
City Council member Bill Carlson, on the other hand, said he doesn’t think Tampa should play a major role in the ballpark search.
Montreal is St. Petersburg’s problem, not Tampa’s.
“My initial reaction is that’s up for the mayor and council of St. Pete to decide. It’s not a Tampa issue,” Carlson said. “St. Pete is the one that has the agreement with the Rays. Tampa isn’t part of it.”