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Rays Stadium Saga: Everything has Changed

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is now in favor of the Rays exploring all stadium options in Tampa Bay.

Al Messerschmidt

The old Thunderdome, built to lure the White Sox, almost enough to snag the Giants, temporary home to the NHL expansion Tampa Bay Lightning, and the occasional spot for a monster truck rally. That's where the Tampa Bay Rays play.

That is no discredit to the money and efforts poured into Tropicana Field over the past near-decade by Stu Sternberg and company. The colors and lights are now bright and welcoming, the stadium clean with decent food, the environment feels tailored for baseball. It's nothing to balk at, everyone is doing their best.

After all, the team had best get comfortable, regardless of how anyone feels about Astroturf and catwalks.

The Rays have a lease, one that stretches until 2027, in a location almost as far away as possible from the center of the population, in the 19th most populated metro area in the United States.

And yes, attendance is a problem. And yes, the Rays would like a new stadium.

This season the Rays have seen their average drop to below 19,000 fans per game, second worst in the major leagues. Including the two sell-out capacity games last weekend.

The ownership and front office have always maintained that the Rays must be permitted to explore future stadium options, including outside of St. Petersburg and to the mainland side of the bay in Tampa.

It's in the team's best interest to consider all the options in Tampa Bay. The current lease holds prohibitive language that would prevent such a search.

Of course, leases can change. The city council nearly voted to allow the Rays to pay an "exploratory fee" in order to investigate stadium locations east of St. Petersburg, but the vote ended in a stalemate, and without one key supporter.

For years, one man has prevented the Rays search into all of Tampa Bay for a new stadium location: St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.

And on Monday, he changed his tune.

About Face

This news will come as a shock to most anyone and everyone in Tampa Bay.

In a candid interview with the Editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times, Mayor Foster expressed that he is no longer confident in the region's ability to support the Rays attendance, and for the good of the whole, the Rays must be allowed to explore all stadium options in the Bay area:

"If your goal is keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in Tampa Bay until 2050, you have to let them look in Tampa."

The words I never expected to read.

There in ink, this morning, is the Rays' biggest opponent in a stadium search claiming the time has come.

For months now, the Rays and Mayor Foster have been meeting quietly behind closed doors -- a welcomed change to last season's awkward silence. Meetings, mere rumblings in the sports section of the local papers, nothing more. No lavish stories, no brick quotes for the papers. Closed doors.

City attorneys made trips to meet with Rays officials almost two weeks ago, presumably to work out the gap between the city of St. Pete and front office. But all has been silent.

Now the silence is broken, and it has been the Mayor who spoke first, motivated by the Rays attendance:

"It's a flag to the entire community. Are we a major league community? Are we a major league region? I think people need to decide what we are. We're either going to be major league and support this team, or we risk losing them.''

He spoke of generations of sports fans. His focus was fixed beyond 2027 and the short term contract his city holds.

There was a time when Mayor Foster utterly distrusted the Rays, thinking their advertising efforts and giveaways were surely sub par, but this season's success -- coupled with promotional days like the Rays Summer Concert series (an annual tradition of five years) -- has shown him the Rays have been faithful to do everything in their power to draw large crowds.

"I didn't always believe that, but I do now," he said.


Mayor Foster tried his own compromise over a year ago. The city allowed a firm to do independent research on Pinellas county, home to St. Petersburg, and found the the traffic heading west on i-275 was light enough in the late afternoons to allow stadium traffic heading out of Hillsborough county to drive to a stadium in a reasonable time limit.

This discovery led to the Carillon Proposal -- a unique plan to build business, hotel, and resort complexes near (but not on) the water of Tampa Bay, off the major interstate that connects the two counties and on the border. Pinellas County maintains its revenues, the Rays get their new stadium.

The proposal also came with an ultimatum from Foster: Accept and the Rays move forward with a new home. Decline, and they can suffer until 2027.

The Rays politely declined, citing a lack of research by their own analysts of the entire Tampa Bay area.

Angry, both parties subsided, until late this spring.


The future is suddenly bright for a new stadium, but why a public change of face? Why re-position yourself as the "good guy" in the Stadium Saga?

Perhaps the Mayor has finally come to his senses.

Perhaps he is feeling the pressure of a reelection campaign.

Maybe he's just given up his fight with the Rays front office.

Or maybe he's just calling a bluff.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan have tread the line of infringement many times in their early efforts to lure the Rays to the east side of the Bay, often drawing ire from Foster.

In the Times article, Foster took subtle jabs at Buckhorn and Hagan:

"It's somewhat humorous to watch Hagan and Buckhorn kind of backpedaling a little bit because they were all wearing their finest trying to court the Rays to look over there. Now that it might actually happen, you got Ken Hagan saying he's not going to commit any taxpayer money to it, which is naive. And you have the mayor of Tampa saying he could come up with $100 million. But the private sector and the Rays have to come up with the lion's share. That's extremely naive."

The Times mentioned that a new stadium should cost over $600 Million, and that traditionally, teams have only been asked to pay one third of the costs.

So what is Foster up to?

After the lawyers started gathering in late July, Neil de Mause speculated the Rays will be allowed to explore options in Tampa, and that Mayor Foster's plan is to let all the parties involved see just how expensive an endeavor that will be.

Pinellas has more money available to support the Rays in building a stadium, and Hillsborough is a bit jaded from the publicly financed Raymond James Stadium of the Buccaneers.

Noah Pransky, the stadium guru, recently suggested the Rays should propose a multi-county tax effort (like has been done in Colorado, Milwaukee, and Minnesota).

Whatever the solution might be, no deal is in place to even let the Rays start exploring. Foster is merely posturing.

But it's encouraging, and if Foster's sentiments are true, the Rays will be able to freely pursue stadium locations in the very near future. In which case, I know of an excellent plan...

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