Yet another setback in the Rays search for a new ballpark

A proposal to let the Tampa Bay Rays examine stadium sites in Hillsborough County went nowhere Thursday. St. Petersburg City Council members even rejected a motion to have their attorney evaluate the proposal's legal implications.

At the same time, signs emerged that the team and city might at least start talking directly about their three-year stadium standoff.

Owner Stuart Sternberg and other Rays officials have tentatively agreed to meet with Mayor Bill Foster on Feb. 15 to discuss stadium matters face to face, the Rays said.

And after Thursday's meeting, team officials seemed to suggest they would be willing to present their case directly to the City Council — just as they have in recent meetings with Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissioners.

"Today's proceedings highlight the need for conversation between the Rays and the City of St. Petersburg,'' senior vice president Michael Kalt said in a statement. "We would welcome that conversation with any and all interested city leaders.''

The council's 90-minute stadium discussion was prompted by a proposal from council member Charlie Gerdes to amend the contract that binds the Rays to Tropicana Field through 2027.

The Rays say the Trop's location is partly to blame for poor attendance and they want a new venue. Foster has forbidden the team from exploring new sites outside the city.

The Gerdes plan would have given the Rays three years to examine sites in either Pinellas or Hillsborough counties in exchange for an annual $1.42 million "exploration fee." That is roughly equal to the city's operating subsidy on the Trop for police protection and insurance.

The money could be used for vital public functions, Gerdes said, and the amendment would assure that the city retains veto power over any new stadium location. He also said St. Petersburg should fare well in any comparison between the counties.

"The position we are taking that allowing them to look (in Hillsborough) means they are leaving is totally contrary to the belief we all have that St. Petersburg is a great place,'' Gerdes said. "I don't think we should be playing defense. We should be playing offense. We should be beating our chest and saying St. Petersburg is a great place to play.''

But other council members spoke against the idea, and City Attorney John Wolfe warned that the proposed amendment could weaken the city's legal position if the Rays unilaterally broke the Trop contract.

Foster repeatedly told the council to "listen to your attorney.''

So Gerdes withdrew his original idea and made a new motion: Have Wolfe formally study the proposed amendment for 30 days and report back on its legal implications.

Even that motion died on a 4-4 tie, with council members Karl Nurse, Leslie Curran and Wengay Newton supporting Gerdes. Jim Kennedy, Steve Kornell, Jeff Danner and Bill Dudley were opposed.

Even so, Wolfe said he would review Gerdes' proposed amendment and render an opinion within two months.

The Trop contract states that baseball brings incalculable benefits to the community, which could theoretically translate to large damages if the team left early. Wolfe has said letting the team evaluate Tampa sites could undercut the claim of terrible harm from the loss of the Rays.

On Thursday, he suggested that the team's true intent is to leave the Tampa Bay area altogether.

"I have dealt with Major League Baseball owners over the years. They look long range,'' Wolfe said. "They have a plan, and they very often get there.''

Kennedy, a lawyer, agreed. When St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair unveiled a stadium plan at Carillon Business Park last year, the Rays would not even discuss it, Kennedy noted.

"The fact that they refused an option like that when they still have 15 years left on the (Trop) use agreement may indicate that their objective is not another county,'' Kennedy said. "Sometimes the hardest thing is to hold your cards and let the game play out.''

Danner suggested that some kind of civic group examine the Carillon proposal as well as transportation and stadium financing possibilities all over the region. "I can't imagine anything wrong if people in Hillsborough weigh in on that,'' he said. "There has to be some way to move this conversation forward.''

Kornell said public debate has been unfair to St. Petersburg. The Rays talk of how few people live within a 30-minute drive of the Trop. But that doesn't square with actual rush hour traffic on the Howard Frankland Bridge, Kornell said. It's more difficult to drive from Pinellas to Hillsborough than vice-versa.

Sternberg recently noted that only 300 season ticket accounts, representing about 800 fans, trace back to St. Petersburg addresses.

"Nobody has mentioned to us how many season tickets there are from Hillsborough County, supposedly a mecca for baseball," Kornell said.

Across the bay, other public officials watched with interest.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he was disappointed that Gerdes' original "exploration fee'' never gained traction.

"I understand why the city administration is hesitant to do it,'' Buckhorn said. "But by the same token, that seemed to be a way to at least start the discussion."

Hillsborough County Commission chairman Ken Hagan said he was encouraged that Sternberg and Foster will meet next week. But he noted the Rays typically shy away from public stadium talks once the season starts.

"I hope this delay doesn't postpone serious negotiations for another year," Hagan said.

Nurse, who chairs the council, said the city needs to renew talks with the team, but "it doesn't necessarily have to be before City Council. If they can get the conversation started with the mayor, that is fine." (source Tampa Times)