CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners support the Tampa Bay Rays’ request to explore stadium locations outside the county.
The commission favors doing whatever is best to keep major league baseball in Tampa Bay – even though the preference is to keep the Rays in Pinellas.
Commission Chair Ken Welch invited Rays’ officials to attend the Feb. 29 commission meeting. He said it was time to have an “important conversation for our community and our partners, the Tampa Bay Rays.”
“It was a long endeavor to get baseball in our community,” he said, while recognizing the county’s partnership with the citizens of St. Petersburg and city officials.
However, due to restrictions that are part of the contract between the team and the city of St. Petersburg, communication between interested parties has been stifled. To date, Mayor Bill Foster has refused to allow any talks that involve a stadium outside St. Petersburg’s city limits.
Welch made it clear that his first choice would be for the team to stay in Pinellas due to the support of local taxpayers that made it possible to build Tropicana Field, where the Rays have played since March 31, 1998.
He pointed to the more than $100 million in tourist development (bed) tax money that has funded debt service on The Trop since 1986, as well as the savings to the city of about $1 million in taxes due to the county taking over ownership of the stadium in 2002.
“It’s been an incredible journey to bring baseball to the Tampa Bay Community,” he said, as he reminded everyone that there had been a community on the site, who had been promised jobs and a better economy.
Welch was referring to Laurel Park housing complex, an affordable housing project where 500 people had lived. The complex was torn down to make room for what would first be known as The Florida Suncoast Dome, which opened in March of 1990. The stadium changed its name to the Thunderdome in August 1993 and the Tampa Bay Lightning played there for two years.
In April of 1995, the city of St. Petersburg signed a 30-year lease with the Devil Rays, who changed their name to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2007. That lease, which requires the team to play at Tropicana Field, expires in 2027.
Welch said it was important to keep the focus on expanding the vision of having major league baseball in Tampa Bay “for our children and their children.”
“Nothing is going to happen without dialogue advancing in an open and honest way,” he said.
Team Owner Stuart Sternberg said the Rays hoped to “continue to move the ball forward and really come up with a solution for long-term success.”
He thanked the county for its contributions.
“Baseball clearly would not be here without those past efforts,” he said.
He thanked the city of St. Petersburg Council and the mayor, but said, “We’re just a baseball team and we try to provide some entertainment nightly.”
He said in the Tampa Bay region about 100 million hours were spent each season watching Tampa Bay Rays’ games, either at the Trop or on TV, which is good but not good enough.
“We’ve had a great five year run,” he said. “But, attendance is just not up to snuff. Season tickets are the lifeblood of baseball and other sport’s teams because we make our annual plans on the sales.”
The team has less than 1,000 season ticket holders and fewer than 300 in St. Petersburg.
“Having 300 home city season ticket holders is not enough,” he said.
Last year, the team ranked last in attendance of all other major league baseball teams, despite having a winning season and an appreciative fan base.
“I want to be here and I want the franchise to be here,” Sternberg said.
Attendance is a limiting factor for the team’s future, he said.
He said he never believed the team would stay at Tropicana Field through the end of its lease, which is why the team proposed building a new stadium on the waterfront in St. Petersburg in 2007.
He admits feeling disappointed when the proposal for the new stadium “fell on deaf ears.”
He said he doesn’t believe that the team’s “best chance to succeed, win and create a sense of excitement and keep players here” could happen while playing at The Trop.
Average attendance at MLB games is 30,000 a year. Attendance to Rays’ home games in 2008 was 22,600 and 19,200 in 2012. The team believes another location would increase attendance.
Currently, one-third of fans come from Hillsborough County, one-quarter from Pinellas and the remainder from other locations.
Sternberg said the team had done what it could to be regional, playing games in Orlando and moving spring training to Port Charlotte in hopes of spreading its fan base throughout the state.
The Rays have not made any decisions about moves to other locations and can’t even explore the possibility due to the lease agreement with St. Petersburg. However, management wants to explore sites identified in a 2010 report by the ABC Coalition, which was initiated by former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker in 2008. Two of the sites are located in Hillsborough County and one is in Pinellas.
“We just want to follow up on the report,” Sternberg said. “We may find out where we are is best, but I don’t imagine that will be the case. But I don’t know. I want to ensure baseball is here for 100 years not just until the end of a lease.”
He said it would take time to figure out the best stadium location, make plans and then construct it.
“Time is not a friend of ours,” he said. “MLB is taking an interest. It’s important to see that something is done here.”
Welch wanted assurances that serious consideration would be given to sites in Pinellas.
“Given the substantial investment by Pinellas County, we have quite a stake in this,” he said.
Sternberg assured Welch that sites in Pinellas would be considered.
“It’s not our intent to do other than follow up on the ABC report,” Sternberg said.
Welch said the debt for Tropicana Field would be paid by 2015. He said it was time to “broaden our thinking” and look to the future.
Commissioner Janet Long asked Sternberg what it would take to move the conversation forward between the team and Mayor Foster.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “If I had any sense of it, I would have already done it.”
“It saddens me that we have to have this conversation,” said Commissioner Susan Latvala. “It (the team) is a business as well as an asset to the community. I wish it were the decision of the board (of county commissioners). We want you in the best place.”
Sternberg said it wasn’t right to have a winning team with no support behind it.
“We should be in the top 20 (for attendance) and that would be enough to run a ball club,” he said.
He said in the early years when attendance was low, everyone told them ‘just win,’ and all will be well. The Rays have factored in that at the same time the team was peaking, the economy was trending downward, but he said other MLB teams went through the same problems with the economy and didn’t have the same drop in attendance. He estimated that the economy affected attendance by 10 to 20 percent.
The Rays have the most affordable tickets in MLB. Fans can bring in their own food and drink. The team has offered free parking as an added incentive, as well as promotions and after-game concerts.
“We really need to get the message out about how good this team is,” Commissioner John Morroni said. “People are focusing on negativity. We need to remember the positive.”
Sternberg said more people coming to the games would make a big difference.
“If we could just get everyone to show up once in a while,” he said.
Sternberg said the team didn’t aspire to “get to be the Yankees, but we have to get to average (attendance).”
St. Petersburg City Council Chair Karl Nurse said the way to get past the stalemate was “to take the first step.”
Nurse favors talks with a developer who presented plans for a stadium at Carillon Business Park in north St. Petersburg. Beyond that, he doesn’t know the next step.
“We’re kind of in a box,” he said. “We can only look at what is in front of us.”
He mentioned other sites – Westshore and downtown Tampa – that could be possible locations.
“We need to have a dialogue,” Welch agreed.
He then passed on a message from Foster, who attended the meeting but had to leave early, to Sternberg about a time for a future meeting “if the Rays are open to that.”
“Out of respect to the mayor and his office, I won’t violate his authority,” Welch said. “But if the mayor would allow you to look in both counties, I would support it.”