1. Opinion

Moving the needle on Rays talks

Published Jan. 29, 2013

The conversation Tuesday between the Tampa Bay Rays and Pinellas County commissioners was productive, with the team's owner offering a next step to move forward on stadium discussions. Stuart Sternberg's request that the county help facilitate a stadium study group that builds on the findings of a previous one sounds reasonable, and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster should embrace it.

Tuesday's meeting came less than a week after a similar one between the Rays and Hillsborough County commissioners, marking a major turning point in the effort to retain Major League Baseball. In both meetings, the team laid out a compelling argument for a new stadium in a location much more centrally located to accommodate its fan base than St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, and it brought an urgency to the discussion that Foster has refused to accept.

Sternberg reaffirmed the team's commitment to the area. But he also spoke plainly about the financial challenges and the personal frustration in fielding a competitive team and improving the fan experience only to have the worst attendance record in the majors. And as he was in his Hillsborough appearance, the Rays owner was pointed in his criticism of Foster, whose denial about the problems with the Trop and insistence that the team not look at locations in both counties has blocked any forward-looking dialogue.

Neither session amounted to a negotiation over what it would take to keep the Rays. But the team used the public stage to make clear that the Trop was inadequate for professional baseball, and that sooner rather than later league owners would step in to stem the bleeding by the franchise. More importantly, the sessions turned up the heat on Foster to break the impasse or get out of the way. The mayor sat in the audience Tuesday for the Rays' presentation, but slipped out midway through, leaving the commission chairman, Ken Welch, to pass along Foster's offer to meet with Sternberg on Thursday. It was an awkward move that captured the mayor's halting performance on a day when the focus was opening lines of communication.

Welch and his colleagues were more direct than Hillsborough commissioners in asking the Rays substantive questions about the business and the potential to grow the fan base from other parts of the bay area, reflecting Pinellas' history and stake as the owner of the Trop and as a source of resort tax revenue that goes to pay down stadium debt. Pinellas did move the needle Tuesday from last week's discussion in Tampa by drawing Sternberg to propose a way forward. The Rays owner encouraged the county to help facilitate the formation of a public-private group to build on the work of the ABC Coalition, a Pinellas-based civic group that examined potential stadium sites several years ago on both sides of the bay.

That is a good step that could help change the focus from which city stands to gain to what the region stands to lose. And it would continue to put pressure on Foster to step up on an issue that is fast leaving him behind.


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