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Tampa Bay Rays find Pinellas County Commission a receptive audience

Sternberg, left, shakes hands with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster before speaking to the Pinellas County Commission in Clearwater.
Sternberg, left, shakes hands with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster before speaking to the Pinellas County Commission in Clearwater.
Published Jan. 30, 2013

The Tampa Bay Rays, wanting to explore Hillsborough County stadium sites, found support Tuesday from one of the governing bodies that built Tropicana Field — just not the one that matters most.

Pinellas County commissioners listened intently as team owner Stuart Sternberg laid out his now-familiar recital of poor attendance and why both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties must figure in a search for a "pitch perfect'' new stadium site.

Commission Chairman Ken Welch agreed that a regionwide search is necessary. "I don't see another way forward,'' he said.

Commissioner Susan Latvala took a pointed shot at St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who has forbidden any stadium negotiations outside city limits.

"It's embarrassing that you are being treated this way in this community,'' Latvala told Sternberg.

By the end of the 90-minute presentation, though, no obvious cracks appeared in the long-running standoff between the city and the Rays.

St. Petersburg, Pinellas County's partner in financing the Trop, controls the contract that binds the team there through 2027.

Foster says Sternberg can explore new sites only in St. Petersburg. Sternberg refuses to consider a new St. Petersburg site unless he can explore Hillsborough as well.

Foster left the meeting early to meet with Sweetbay officials over its plans to close the Midtown store. But he sent a message through Welch that he would keep his calendar open from 7 a.m. to noon Thursday to discuss stadium matters with Sternberg.

Sternberg would not commit.

"We might meet in 48 hours, or four to eight weeks, or four to six days,'' he told reporters.

St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Karl Nurse urged the Rays to negotiate with developer Darryl LeClair, who recently unveiled elaborate plans and demographics for a stadium at Carillon Business Park.

"The challenge is to get past the stalemate,'' Nurse said. "I ask the Rays to take the first step —look at Carillon. It's a live proposal with a lot of detail.''

Sternberg promised commissioners that he would make a good faith effort to consider Carillon — but only as part of a regional search.

A Carillon-only approach "makes no sense,'' he told reporters.

The Trop presents a "fundamental location problem,'' Rays' executive Michael Kalt told the commission. Tampa Bay is smaller than most baseball markets and ranks near the bottom in key demographics like household income and people working close to the stadium.

Tampa Bay "can be a strong baseball market,'' he said, "but you have to get it right.''

Tuesday's meeting did offer a few nuggets of new information.

The Rays said fewer than 300 full-season ticket holders live in St. Petersburg — representing a total of about 800 to 900 seats per game.

"Season tickets are the lifeblood of any organization in baseball,'' Sternberg said. "We are able to make long-term decisions based on them.''

Sternberg said his attendance goal was to hit the league average of roughly 30,000 a game, more during winning seasons, less when losing.

Last week Sternberg told the Hillsborough County Commission that Major League Baseball "no longer believes in the Tampa Bay area'' and suggested that fellow owners might step in at some point and eliminate the team.

A new stadium in the right place could forestall that, he told Pinellas commissioners.

"If there is movement going forward in terms of a plan in place, I think it would turn right away,'' he said.

Asked what he wanted from the commission, Sternberg thanked it for sparking conversation but could not offer a single specific because only St. Petersburg can allow a region-wide search.

"We are not asking for a nickel,'' he told the commission. "It's like going out to buy a car. I'm not asking how it is going to be financed. I just want to look around and see what kind of car we can drive.''

Kalt delved into one topic of interest to both commissioners and St. Petersburg council members, who sat in the audience: Putting the Trop's 84 acres to use if the Rays move elsewhere.

"The cost of inaction is just not about baseball,'' Kalt said. "One thing that gets lost is the redevelopment potential of the Trop. It is sitting on an enormous piece of land in a rapidly growing downtown that has real value and is frankly lying fallow.''

"The debt service (on the Trop) pales in comparison to what can come from property and sales tax generation if you put that land to use," he said.

That seemed to resonate with Welch, who noted that about 500 people lost their homes when the Trop land was originally assembled out of St. Petersburg's Gas Plant neighborhood. People who lived in the area were promised jobs that never materialized.

Welch suggested that the Rays might break the stalemate by offering St. Petersburg monetary compensation for letting them look in Hillsborough, then "a larger check if they ultimately decide on a site other than Pinellas County.''

That money could be used to help build a new police station or a small convention center, "something that creates jobs and gets back to the original plans of the Gas Plant relocation,'' Welch said.

Foster reacted with disdain that the Rays would use Trop redevelopment to justify leaving town.

"Now they are looking out for St. Pete's best interests?'' he said sarcastically. "If we wanted to redevelop that into an International Mall, we would have done that. But in 1980, the people of St. Petersburg decided that Major League Baseball was important.

"The only reason that Mr. Sternberg is one of the elite 30 (baseball owners) is on the backs of the people of St. Petersburg.''

As for Latvala's dig that he was treating Sternberg shabbily, Foster said he was protecting the city's interests. Sternberg is not responding to offers to meet, Foster said, "and that's not negotiation."

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