St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster shot down a proposal by the Tampa Bay Rays to explore new-ballpark sites in Tampa, arguing that if the Rays are allowed to shop around, they could end up leaving the region.
Now, the Rays ownership have shown absolutely no interest in leaving Tampa Bay, and there are no cities lining up with viable ballpark plans at this time (sorry, Expos fans). In fact, the Rays ownership has been explicit about seeking a Tampa Bay ballpark solution. But that didn't stop Foster from rejecting a proposal from Rays ownership to explore other ballpark locations in the region only after the future of Tropicana Field was addressed:
"At this point, the only way to adequately preserve the interests of the people of St. Petersburg is to leave the Use, Management and Operation Agreement intact, and the City will not agree, by affirmative act or acquiescence, to any stadium exercise outside of St. Petersburg or Pinellas Gateway. However, the offer by the city to explore the CityScape proposal is still on the table, and I remain hopeful that we can work together to preapre an amendment allowing the Rays to work with CityScape to fully examine this site as a future home for the Tampa Bay Rays. While we can write letters all day long, my preference is still a face to face meeting to discuss these issues of great mutual importance."
The CityScape proposal calls for a new ballpark at Carillon Business Park, a site that certainly has its share of challenges: a lack of parking, an extremely small ballpark footprint, and the total lack of a funding plan. It's not really a proposal: it's a set of wondrous renderings with little hard data behind it. It's worthy of consideration, and the Rays have made it clear they want to discuss it -- along with any pitches that may come from Hillsborough County, with at least one downtown Tampa proposal in hand and another on the way.
With the letter, Foster made it clear that his preference, really, is to see the Rays play out the lease at Tropicana Field, arguing that since it was good enough for the Rays in 1995, it's good enough for the Rays of 2013 and beyond:
"When you became the principal owner of the Rays in 2005, you did so with your eyes wide open, fully aware of this history, and with full knowledge of these commitments made by your predecessors just ten years earlier. In 1995, the Dome was completely vetted by a MLB facility review team, and the city and county were asked by the Rays to step up once again to make $50 million in improvement to bring the Dome in line with Major League Baseball's standards. St. Petersburg and Pinellas County did step up, as they always have, to support the Rays."
Foster may regret these words if the Rays and St. Pete ever end up in court. The state of the art in ballpark design changed dramatically between 1995 and the present, and one plausible argument for the Rays breaking a lease would be that Tropicana Field was not an adequate facility for a profitable Major League Baseball team. Also, it will be harder to argue for damages past 2015, when the bonds on the Trop will mostly be paid off; the team pays no lease, and the city makes little on the Rays once hard costs like police are paid.
The letter caught the attention of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who slightly reprimanded Foster for not working toward a solution:
"There's work to be done there," Selig said before World Series Game 3, "and he ought to try to be helpful and constructive in that process. That's all I'll say."
The next move will come from the Rays. Despite threats from St. Petersburg officials that meeting with Hillsborough County officials would violate the team's lease, it sounds like the Rays do indeed plan on such a meeting. Right now we have a landlord and a tenant communicating via letter and press release; hard to see things get any worse short of legal action from either side.
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