The St. Petersburg City Council's dispiriting discussion this week failed to break the unproductive stalemate over a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays and redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site. But it was not a total loss. The rambling conversation revealed the lack of vision and sophistication of half of the council members to grasp what is at stake, and it underscored the importance of this fall's elections to add more thoughtful voices.
Allowing the Rays to begin a regional stadium search holds such clear benefits for St. Petersburg over clinging to the unproductive status quo that voters should make this a top campaign issue. Two of the four obstructionists, Bill Dudley and Wengay Newton, will be leaving office because of term limits. Jim Kennedy, whose parochial blinders led him to see little difference to St. Petersburg whether the Rays move to Tampa or Montreal, will not be on the ballot. But Steve Kornell is seeking re-election, and he should draw a credible opponent who understands that holding the Rays hostage is a losing hand.
The Rays' understandable desire to search for a new stadium site in either Pinellas or Hillsborough counties offers an opportunity to preserve Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay for a new generation. It also would allow St. Petersburg to proceed with a master-planned development of the Trop's 85 acres, with or without a new stadium. That would increase property values throughout surrounding neighborhoods, create jobs and generate millions of dollars in new tax revenue. Yet half of the council continues to rebuff Mayor Rick Kriseman's sensible attempts to proceed with the stadium search, which would include reasonable compensation for the city if the Rays moved to Hillsborough before their contract on the Trop expires in 2027.
One bright light that emerged Thursday was council member Amy Foster's revelation that her thinking has evolved since voting against Kriseman's deal in December. Foster said she now recognizes that the redevelopment of the Trop site is too important to keep on the shelf. That leaves the council with a 4-4 split, with Foster joining Charlie Gerdes, Darden Rice and Karl Nurse in supporting an opportunity to both preserve baseball and redevelop the Trop site. It is a split that probably cannot be broken until after the election.
Newton and Dudley spent much of the meeting reciting history or perceived slights. Kornell was particularly disappointing, harping on suspect studies about tourist spending on the Rays. He blithely dismissed Gerdes' reasonable estimates that full Trop development could total between $1 billion and $2 billion in construction, with corresponding increases in property values, tax collections and year-round economic impact to surrounding businesses.
Kornell suggested his own absurd buyout price for the Rays: $55 million, based on what an NBA team owner paid to move from Seattle to Oklahoma City. There is no comparison to this situation, and he fails to grasp that the potential return for redevelopment of the Trop site is far greater than what the Rays would pay the city to leave before 2027. Kornell even foolishly argued that a sports bar near the Trop should receive money from any Rays payments, and he could not recognize that every year that ticks off the stadium lease reduces the city's leverage with the Rays.
No wonder Rays owner Stuart Sternberg declined to send anyone to a council meeting where opportunity and optimism could not overcome fear and hurt feelings.
Nurse's proposal to launch an Urban Land Institute study of the Trop acreage flopped amid confusion about whether the Rays would participate. That study is a worthy idea that would allow civic leaders to start exploring exciting changes that could reshape the entire city. But it will be the outcome of the City Council elections that ultimately will determine whether St. Petersburg moves forward or continues to squander an opportunity to transform the city.