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  1. Opinion

Editorial: St. Petersburg deserves better City Council

It’s disappointing the Tampa Bay Rays will open another baseball season Monday without resolving the stadium stalemate. But there is a St. Petersburg city election in less than five months, and voters can replace three of the City Council members who are blocking progress.
It’s disappointing the Tampa Bay Rays will open another baseball season Monday without resolving the stadium stalemate. But there is a St. Petersburg city election in less than five months, and voters can replace three of the City Council members who are blocking progress.
Published Mar. 31, 2015

It's disappointing the Tampa Bay Rays will open another baseball season Monday without resolving the stadium stalemate when the path forward is so clear. But there is a St. Petersburg city election in less than five months, and voters will have an opportunity to send a clear message. They can replace three of the City Council members who are blocking progress with more thoughtful leaders who can recognize what is in the best interests of city taxpayers and the entire Tampa Bay region.

Two of the St. Petersburg City Council members who refuse to allow the Rays to look in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for potential stadium sites cannot seek re-election because of term limits. Bill Dudley, who represents District 3 that covers northeast neighborhoods, and Wengay Newton, who represents District 7 that includes the central part of the city, will both be replaced. Neither has been a leader on the council, and their obstinance on the stadium issue reflects their broader failures to grasp complicated issues and pursue long-term solutions.

The biggest disappointment in this group has been Steve Kornell, who represents District 5 that includes the city's southernmost neighborhoods. He is seeking re-election and has embraced progressive issues that particularly benefit children and low-income residents. But Kornell has failed to connect how resolving the stadium issue could create more tax revenue to pay for the programs he champions.

Unfortunately, the two other council members who have opposed an agreement with the Rays are not on the ballot this year. Jim Kennedy's argument that the Rays should only talk to St. Petersburg about a new stadium is unrealistic, because a regional baseball franchise needs to be able to find the best stadium site throughout its core market. Amy Foster won election two years ago by emphasizing her business savvy, which has yet to surface in the stadium discussion.

The bottom line in the stadium stalemate is not going to change. The Rays play in outdated Tropicana Field and routinely have the lowest attendance in Major League Baseball. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman negotiated a reasonable deal to let the franchise look at potential sites for a new home only in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The Rays would pay the city $2 million to $4 million a year for every year left on its Tropicana Field lease between the time it moved and the lease's expiration in 2027. And the team would give up its right to share half of the proceeds of any development at the Trop site after it announced it was leaving.

That agreement would enable the Rays to start looking for sites. It would let St. Petersburg officials start discussing whether the city should help pay for a new baseball stadium — and start exploring the considerable development potential of the 85 acres at the Trop. These are complicated issues that will take months, if not years, to resolve. Yet Kriseman and City Council chair Charlie Gerdes decided not to bring the agreement to the council this week because the mayor could not get enough votes.

The stalemate only harms St. Petersburg taxpayers. It reduces the city's leverage with the Rays, because the value of the lease keeps decreasing as the years go by. The city can't pursue plans for a new stadium with a franchise that wants to look at all of its options. And it can't pursue a master development for the Tropicana Field site that could bring in substantial tax revenue and transform the city.

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While the five council members blocking a deal with the Rays are failing to maximize the city's assets, they also are harming St. Petersburg's image. They reflect the city's old insecurities with their lack of vision and self-confidence to embrace this opportunity. They are clinging to the status quo, and that is a losing hand.

St. Petersburg deserves smarter, bolder leadership. It has that leadership in the mayor and several of the other council members. Now voters need to add a few stronger, more sophisticated voices to the City Council who have the confidence to embrace the future and break the baseball stadium stalemate.

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