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Romano: After six years, deal may clear way for Rays stadium search

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, left, speaks with reporters after a presentation to the Pinellas County Commission in Clearwater in 2013. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, left, speaks with reporters after a presentation to the Pinellas County Commission in Clearwater in 2013. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published Sep. 3, 2014

Something tells me this is not how Century 21 would have handled it.

If you recall, dreams of a new waterfront home in St. Petersburg were once abandoned by the Tampa Bay Rays, in part because critics said the process was too rushed.

So it was agreed that a more deliberate approach was needed, and community leaders would take the reins. A blue-ribbon committee formed, and the first meeting was scheduled.

That was six years ago this month.

Since then, there has been no visible progress on location. Or design. Or financing. Or even a way to begin the initial conversations for location, design or financing.

Mostly, there's been a healthy dose of harrumphing followed by speculation and punctuated with sporadic blips of optimism.

Which brings us to today.

And perhaps the first signs of progress.

An agreement between the Rays and St. Petersburg that would allow the team to begin conversations about future stadium sites seems to be growing near, based on conversations with those involved.

Unlike a deal talked about under former Mayor Bill Foster, the latest agreement may not spell out the financial implications if the Rays leave Tropicana Field before its stadium use agreement ends in 2027. Instead, the team might be allowed to look at potential sites in Hillsborough County with further discussions in St. Pete to follow.

The impetus seems to be a need for clarity. That goes for the Rays, St. Petersburg and Hillsborough.

It's become clear Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is moving ahead with plans for development in downtown Tampa without a baseball stadium on his collection of properties.

That doesn't mean there aren't other sites in downtown Tampa that might be suitable, but there is a risk of baseball being squeezed out if options aren't explored soon.

Likewise, there is potential for redevelopment of the land where Tropicana sits. If it is inevitable that baseball will eventually leave St. Pete, it makes sense to line up a replacement ahead of time.

Jabil Circuit is in the market for a new headquarters, and landing a major high-tech firm on the Tropicana site could transform the western edge of downtown. But Jabil, or any corporation for that matter, can't wait indefinitely for a decision on the Rays.

Another potential piece of the puzzle is a 60-acre plot of land in Tampa's West Shore district, where Jefferson High and two other schools sit.

West Shore, along with downtown Tampa, were the two Hillsborough sites identified by that blue-ribbon committee as having the corporate base necessary for a stadium location. If Hillsborough officials decide that land is in play, it creates another potential stadium site that would have to be explored quickly before it is earmarked for something else.

Much like two general managers working a trade in baseball, the objective shouldn't be to fleece the other guy. Instead, it should be approached as a partnership.

If the Rays get permission to explore their options, it could end up as a win-win-win situation for Tampa, St. Pete and baseball. But in order for that to happen, everybody has to be able to talk without fear of accusations, lawsuits and hurt feelings.

For the first time in a long while, we may be heading in that direction.

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