More St. Pete residents open to Tampa Bay Rays exploring Hillsborough stadium sites

Tropicana Field is shown in the shadow of the skyline of downtown St. Petersburg.
Tropicana Field is shown in the shadow of the skyline of downtown St. Petersburg.
Published Oct. 29, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Sheila Thorne, 76, finds herself in a quandary about her beloved Tampa Bay Rays and where they play.

Thorne lives in the Disston Ridge area of St. Petersburg, just 10 or 15 minutes from Tropicana Field. She doesn't want the team moving to a new stadium in Hillsborough County. But more than anything, she hates discord between her city and her team.

"The Rays did sign a contract,'' to play at the Trop through 2027, Thorne said, "but I sure as blazes am not going to hold them back from going to Tampa. I am proud to have the Rays be our team in the Tampa Bay area. Why did we come to this conflict of everybody being unhappy? It's defeating the purpose."

That viewpoint — greased by years of poor attendance at the Trop — is becoming increasingly common among St. Petersburg residents, a Tampa Bay Times, Bay New 9 and WUSF Public Media poll shows.

Among the 809 respondents, 48 percent were open to letting the Rays explore new stadium options all over the Tampa Bay area, with 39 percent opposed, while 13 percent were unsure or did not answer. The margin of error was 3.4 percent.

People did not see stadium negotiations as the city's single most pressing issue. Building a new pier, public safety and Midtown redevelopment came first. But the poll does show that the electorate is keeping pace with city administrators as they evolve into a more nuanced position on the stadium.

In 2009, when a civic study group called the ABC Coalition first broached the idea of a Hills-borough stadium, then-Mayor Rick Baker fired off an angry letter of rejection. His successor, Bill Foster, threatened legal action when Hillsborough politicians said they would welcome the team.

But earlier this year, Foster quietly began negotiating a legal and financial framework that would allow the team to start looking across the bay. Those talks fell apart in September, with Foster saying that the Rays were offering no financial compensation for breaking their contract — "nothing but a thank-you note."

The Rays have declined to comment, but Rick Kriseman, Foster's opponent in Tuesday's mayoral election, accused the mayor of not being candid.

"I have talked to (Rays president) Matt Silverman and I was told that the allegation is not true — that the Rays weren't offering anything,'' Kriseman said. "They expressed concerns about how forthright the mayor is being with them and the community on this issue.''

Foster reiterated his position Monday. "Everything I said was true,'' he said, adding that he could not provide details without violating the confidentiality of the discussions.

The Rays declined to comment on any conversations with Kriseman or Foster, but both mayoral candidates said they expect negotiations with the team to recommence after the election.

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In the poll, 38 percent of respondents would let the team look in Hillsborough — but only after the Rays and city negotiate some financial compensation. Ten percent of respondents would allow a Hillsborough search without preconditions.

Almost 4 in 10 said the Rays should stay at the Trop, period. African-American residents, in particular, felt this way, opposing any Tampa forays 52-35 percent.

The results show "that there is a gap between the three views," Foster said, "and I have been trying to bridge that gap for the past year.''

The goal, Foster said, is to commit the Rays to the region beyond 2027, while protecting St. Petersburg's financial interests and preserving contractual provisions that keep the team from moving outside the area.

"That's what we have been talking about all year,'' Foster said, "and as mayor for the next four, I will continue in that vein to make sure we have baseball remaining in Tampa Bay for many years to come.''

Kriseman said he wanted to talk about beefing up Trop attendance before negotiating any potential move to Hillsborough.

That would be fine with Mamie Rogers, 72, who thinks the city should stand firm and not allow any Tampa dalliances.

"The Rays need to stay here and fulfill their contract,'' Rogers said. "They need to do a greater job of marketing — school nights, corporation nights, every 10 or 50 tickets you get five free.''

Jeremy Jackson, 38, would let the Rays look around the area without any preconditions. Attendance woes stem more from poor corporate support than from lackluster fans, he said, and a downtown Tampa stadium might help.

"I would love to keep them in St. Petersburg,'' Jackson said, "but I think the city has proven we cannot put people in the seats.''

Any Tampa stadium deal would require approval by St. Petersburg, Jackson said, and the city could seek compensation at that time.

"There has to be something for the contract. There has to be some give and take,'' he said. "But realistically, for the sake of the Rays, we are going to have to allow them to look around.''