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  1. Florida Politics

Mayor Bill Foster says talks with the Tampa Bay Rays aren't going well

Last week, Rays officials told the Tampa Bay Partnership that other team owners are growing impatient as the Rays try to secure a new ballpark.
Published Sep. 6, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — A deal to end the long-standing stadium impasse between the city and the Tampa Bay Rays could be falling apart.

Late Wednesday, Mayor Bill Foster updated the City Council about the ongoing negotiations to allow the team to look at stadium sites outside the city as long as St. Petersburg taxpayers are protected in the deal.

"It has become apparent to me that Major League Baseball has no intention of assisting the city and Rays in reaching a mutually beneficial solution," Foster wrote in a memo to the council. "Nor does Major League Baseball seem interested in a cooperative effort to keep the Rays in the Tampa Bay Region for the long term."

In recent months, Foster said the city and Rays have engaged in hours of talks on the telephone and in face-to-face meetings. Both sides have kept an "eye toward compromise."

Foster told council members he is committed to more talks but "cannot and will not support an outcome that is primarily at the public's expense."

Sticking points seem to center around how much the team would pay the city for leaving early and to demolish Tropicana Field.

Foster's declaration comes three weeks after baseball commissioner Bud Selig said the slow pace of the talks might prompt him to intervene in the discussions.

The mayor's memo Wednesday took the team by surprise.

"It is unfortunate and unproductive in so many ways that Mayor Foster chose now to publicly describe our conversations," according to a statement from Rays officials. "We have remained silent about the details of our discussions and we will have no further comment today."

The breakdown in talks baffled council member Charlie Gerdes.

He thought the two sides were close to reaching an agreement and figured Selig's comments were meant to spur a resolution.

"I think it's unfortunate we're deadlocked," Gerdes said. "I was encouraged by the recent discussions."

He worries that Selig's comments might be counterproductive.

"I hope the city recognizes that the party that they are dealing with is the Rays, not baseball," Gerdes said. "The Rays have to negotiate with baseball.''

The stalemate is likely to become a central theme in the Nov. 5 mayoral election. Foster's challenger, Rick Kriseman, has said Foster hasn't showed enough leadership in solving the stadium issue.

Foster needs five council votes to pass any deal with the team. Four of the eight council members support Kriseman.

Gerdes said he doubts Foster is allowing politics to seep into the talks, though he thinks it would help Foster politically to get a deal done before November.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg also could benefit, Gerdes added: "The possibility of a new mayor might worry Stu as much as Foster."

Foster has objected to the team exploring new stadium sites outside of Pinellas County since he took office in 2010. He constantly talked about holding the team to its user agreement, which binds the Rays to Tropicana Field through 2027.

He shifted his stance earlier this year after team representatives visited Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions to talk about the dire need for a new stadium to help boost attendance.

In early August, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said they're prepared to start discussions about Hillsborough sites as soon as a deal is reached in St. Petersburg.

Last week, Sternberg and Rays president Matt Silverman told the Tampa Bay Partnership, a nonprofit economic development organization, that other team owners are growing impatient as the Rays try to secure a new ballpark.

The issue surrounds the league's revenue-sharing program.

Teams saddled with aging stadiums and spotty attendance often receive tens of millions of dollars a year from wealthier teams with more robust fan bases. That money is now helping sustain the Rays.

Foster's memo described the revenue sharing as Selig's "sole motivation" and only measure of success in the matter. And baseball's failure to consider taxpayers' investment "is the real impediment to progress," Foster said.

With a month left in the season, the team said it is "focused on the excitement of a pennant race and the opportunity to reach the postseason."

Council member Leslie Curran agreed.

"Maybe right now the focus should be on the season," she said. "There is no love lost between the Rays, the city and Bud Selig."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter @markpuente.

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