The St. Petersburg City Council succumbed to fear, parochialism and short-sighted thinking Thursday by rejecting a fair agreement to let the Tampa Bay Rays look for new stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The five council members who killed the deal negotiated by Mayor Rick Kriseman did not act in the best interests of their constituents, demonstrated a lack of faith in the city's renaissance and jeopardized the future of major league baseball in Tampa Bay.
Council members Steve Kornell, Wengay Newton, Amy Foster, Jim Kennedy and Bill Dudley dealt a serious setback to St. Petersburg and the region by voting against an agreement that took Kriseman and the Rays months to negotiate. They misread the clear message St. Petersburg voters sent in last year's mayoral election that they want the stadium stalemate to be resolved. They have not been listening to Rays owner Stuart Sternberg's consistent request to look throughout the franchise's core market for a stadium site. They turned their back on the region, and they sent a strong signal to Major League Baseball that they would rather the Rays move to Montreal than Tampa.
Kriseman and the Rays could not have been clearer. The agreement to let the Rays look for stadium sites in both counties for three years was a compromise. It required the franchise to pay for every year left on the lease if it left Tropicana Field before 2027, and it required the Rays to pay off state bonds if the state declined to pay them off. The city was adequately protected, and it still could have pitched the Trop site and other city parcels for a new stadium. Instead, five City Council members damaged the city's relationship that Kriseman had rebuilt with the Rays and left the way forward uncertain.
What is clear is that these council members failed to grasp the realities that have long framed this stadium issue. First, the Rays are a regional franchise and have to be able to look throughout their core market for stadium sites. Second, every year that passes without an agreement to let the franchise look in both counties increases the leverage for the Rays. Third, the Rays will not be playing in the outdated Tropicana Field to league-low crowds until the lease expires in 2027. And finally, when the Rays do leave for a city willing to see them as partners, St. Petersburg will not collect nearly the financial damages that some council members seem to think.
Beyond baseball, Thursday's irresponsible vote sent a broader disturbing message about a St. Petersburg City Council that is supposed to be more enlightened, progressive and visionary than some of its predecessors. Foster and others rejected regionalism and talked about acting in the best interest of St. Petersburg taxpayers. In fact, they rejected a fair deal that protected city taxpayers and opened up the possibility of new development on the Trop site that could bring jobs and revenue to the city. They talked about their love of a vibrant St. Petersburg that can compete with any place, yet lacked the confidence to let the city compete for the Rays.
Kornell, Newton, Foster, Kennedy and Dudley are clinging to the past rather than betting on the future. They sided with two former council members and failed mayoral candidates, Kathleen Ford and Larry Williams, and former Mayor Bill Foster, whom voters replaced with Kriseman last year in part because he could not reach a deal with the Rays. These are the small thinkers who have yet to shed the inferiority complex that once hung over St. Petersburg and its leaders.
St. Petersburg is long past that era, and Tampa Bay has grown up as a region. Give Kriseman credit for reaching a fair deal with the Rays. Praise council members Charlie Gerdes, Karl Nurse and Darden Rice for having the courage and the vision to vote for it. If the Rays leave Tampa Bay one day, remember which five council members are to blame.