The St. Petersburg City Council is nearing a vote to allow a Rays stadium search in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and despite any conspiracy theories to the contrary and the trouble in California, staying in Tampa Bay remains this ownership group's sole focus.
Rays principle owner Stu Sternberg spoke with mlb.com's Bill Chastain during the season about the stadium situation, and doubled down on his efforts to stay in Tampa Bay:
"At some point or other we're going to get this right," Sternberg said. "And I want it to happen sooner for the benefit of the citizens of St. Petersburg. For the benefit of our fans throughout the region. For the benefit of Major League Baseball. And really, so we can take the focus off of my organization, so we can do 100 percent of what we need to, which is to build a fan base. Not have to answer these questions. Build a fan base. Not have to have people scared and worried. Build a fan base and know that we're going to be here for 50 or 60 years."
Since that time, Sternberg has continued to keep the conversation focused on finding the next Rays stadium location, and has essentially ignored all other talking points around stadium financing or possible changes in ownership should the city deny a stadium search. This is a logical position.
Being released from Tropicana Field's "iron-clad" agreement -- which, for those unfamiliar, prohibits a stadium search by the Rays anywhere outside the St. Petersburg city limits -- is the first priority for any progress to be made. It's the backbone of the multiple proposals that failed to pass the St. Pete City Council's vote in the two previous off-seasons, and has become the focus again now that the new-look Council has taken office.
A new draft of the Rays' proposal is set for consideration this week, and the language remains specific. The Rays search will be limited to Tampa Bay:
This Memorandum of Understanding is made and executed... between the City of St. Petersburg, Florida... and Tampa Bay Rays Baseball, Ltd.
Whereas, the Club wishes to begin evaluating potential future stadium sites in Pinellas County, Florida ("Pinellas") and Hillsborough County, Florida ("Hillsborough") for the Tampa Bay Rays to play home games prior to the end of the Major League Baseball season occurring in the year 2027; and
Whereas, the City wishes to retain the Tampa Bay Rays as a MLB franchise in the Tampa Bay region for the long term; and
Whereas, the City has agreed to allow the Club to engage in activities related to the evaluation of potential future stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough only, subject to the terms and conditions set forth in this MOU.
And yet people still doubt the Rays' intentions.
Of course, you can always find reasons for pessimism. Sternberg suggests below that his focus is on finding a Tampa Bay area location that works best for the team, but also acknowledges it might not be possible:
"We might find out that it's impossible and it can't be done, and there's no place that works," Sternberg said. "I personally believe it can. I personally believe that there's a location that works dramatically better than where we are, whether it's 10 feet away or 12 miles away. And I think we'd like to do the work to find out what kind of corporate support we'd get in a new environment, what kind of individual support we'd get in a new environment, and then we'd understand what the future of this franchise is. I know we'll be sitting in a new ballpark," he said. "But whether it's going to be 12 years or seven years [from now] remains to be seen."
And there are further complications. The availability of public and private funds is (and will continue to be) in a state of flux. We cannot say with certainty whether any, or how much Tax Increment Financing may be available in Tampa or St. Petersburg. And who's to say when a new television deal could be negotiated to bring more cash flow to the team.
Finding and building a new stadium will be a long and arduous process, but the focus and intent is to remain in Tampa Bay.
So look on the bright side. While many of the main questions underlying the development of a new stadium remain open -- the where, the how much, the who pays -- the likely City Council vote will at least start a process that will provide some answers.