The Rays finally have permission to search for a new stadium in Tampa Bay, but why did it take this long to happen?
Back in 2008, before the team became successful, but after the Great Recession made St. Petersburg's new stadium plans no longer feasible, the belief was that a significant boost in attendance would be possible if the Rays merely started winning, and they were right . . . for one more playoff run.
Attendance is a fickle topic, but after the Rays dropped the Devil, attendance leaped to an average of 22,370 per game, and stayed at that level for two seasons: 23,148 in 2009 and 23,025 in 2010. From there attendance has cratered, down to a 15,322 average per game in 2015, the lowest mark of Stu Sternberg's ownership.
Efforts are being made to improve attendance, including new ticket packages and the hiring of former Nashville Predators CEO Jeff Cogan, but since 2010, the team's hopes for more gate receipts remain contingent on the promise of a new stadium. And if winning won't bring the fans in Tampa Bay all the way down to St. Petersburg, the Rays want the ability to move closer to the fans.
The city said no, and continued to do so until last week. This was third formal attempt by the Rays to receive permission for a stadium site search, in as many years, by way of an amendment to the team's lease.
Previous votes by the City Council resulted in 3-5 and 4-4 decisions. Some Council members had legitimate concern for the interests of local taxpayers. The city had invested its money to build Tropicana field, and the team was signed to a 30-year lease. Why not ensure that the city derived the revenue promised by the initial use agreement?
Others seemed driven by far pettier motivations. For example, some had hurt feelings when the Rays preferred to negotiate through a mediator (City Mayor Rick Kriseman) instead of in a public forum during City Council meetings.
Things grew even more contentious as the Rays stuck to that policy when the Council questioned a matter of a few thousand dollars. After amending the proposal to allocate that money to the city, there was still not a majority vote.
One of the Council members denying the Rays search request, Wengay Newton, had been holding out for more financial incentives for his neighborhood before voting for the proposal. He was term limited out in November, however, and his brother lost a bid for his seat to Lisa Wheeler Brown, who won a decisive victory.
Wheeler campaigned on a plan to re-develop Tropicana Field into a vibrant, functioning neighborhood, whereas Newton's vision demanding the land be re-zoned into St. Petersburg's poorest neighborhood, which was Newton's aim: development proceeds for the poorest neighborhood. This would force redevelopment efforts to include large swaths of South St. Pete, which you could argue would dilute the impact or the project.
In their third proposal to the new-look City Council, the Rays went a step further, adding the team's resources to the redevelopment budget, and offering to funnel funds through a team account to facilitate progress on the 85-acre site of the current stadium.
Also helping the Rays' cause in this third proposal was the team's active role before the City Council.
While the Rays still conducted negotiations through their third party, team President Brian Auld joined the mayor in one-on-one meetings with each Council member to present the new proposal. Rays owner Stu Sternberg attended and spoke at the City Council meeting, reflecting a humble and grateful attitude
The Rays vote passed by a 5-3 margin, freeing the team to look for a new stadium site outside the limits of St. Petersburg, and providing a termination clause should the team choose to leave.
The City receives a payout for that termination, and the Newton family's neighborhood finally stands to benefit -- not from a re-zoning effort, but from real redevelopment of the 85-acres under Tropicana Field into a new neighborhood in downtown St. Petersburg.
Even so, it may not be fair to characterize the holdup as one Councilmember holding back this deal from crossing the finish line, which could have happened at least a year prior. It's entirely possible that the Rays were poor negotiators until this most recent attempt, previously keeping the citizen member council at arms length. The team did not trust the Council, for better and worse.
But this negotation was not possible in the previous political landscape. The eight member City Council was manned by elected members of the St. Pete community, but from day to day they were under the influence of Mayor Bill Foster. He was defeated by Rick Kriseman in 2013, who much like Lisa Wheeler Brown, included the economic benefit of redeveloping Tropicana Field's 85-acres into his campaign platform.
Kriseman believes the Rays can and should stay in St. Petersburg, but he was willing to look beyond 2027 to see the benefit to his City. By taking advantage of low-interest-rate-driven economics, he can build a new neighborhood, and through his negotiation with the Rays was able to provide an opportunity for the team to look for a new stadium, while negotiating that the stadium remain in Tampa Bay.
Before the election of Kriseman, the Rays did not have an advocate at the City willing to provide a way for the Rays to stay in Tampa Bay.
The entire process might have taken a year or two longer than it should have, but the ability for the Rays to build a new home in what they deem the best location in Tampa Bay -- whether you like how it's ended or not -- boils down to the election of Mayor Kriseman.