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St. Pete mayor relents on Rays lease; Tampa moves to woo team

Tampa Bay RaysWith St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster finally facing reality and softening his stance on a move of the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa officials are already prepping a game plan to lure the franchise across the bay.

In the middle of a tough reelection campaign, the hardnosed Foster — who has insisted from Day One that the Rays serve out the remainder of their Tropicana Field lease no matter the financial costs — has backed off that stance. Earlier this week he said it would be better for the Rays to stay somewhere in greater Tampa Bay rather than leaving the market in the face of poor attendance, and yesterday he affirmed the change in opinion:

“My position hasn’t changed in protecting and preserving the interests of the taxpayers,” Foster said Tuesday. “The objective is to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay for generations to come and the only way we get to have those discussions would be to allow exploration throughout the region.”

Enter Tampa, where there’s been talk of downtown ballpark sites and potential funding sources (like an extension of an existing downtown tax) for months now. Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan has been an advocate of bringing in the Rays, and with the new that Foster is backing down, he’s sprung into action and is already forming a committee with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to meet with the Rays ownership:

It initially would sit down with Rays executives and ask them about future plans and needs, but future discussions could include possible sites around Tampa and Hillsborough County. Private landowners who might want to develop a stadium on their property would not have seats on the committee, Hagan said.

Other leaders on the Hillsborough side of the bay have less formulated plans than Hagan, but sounded thrilled that Foster has softened his hard-line stance toward the Rays.

“We think it was a great move in making sure the Tampa Bay Rays remain the Tampa Bay Rays,” said Bob Rohrlack, chief executive of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Buckhorn provided his own enthusiasm in a statement issued by his office:

“It is time we broke the stalemate, and I look forward to the opportunity for the Rays to explore all options,” Buckhorn said in the statement. “Commissioner Hagan and I have agreed throughout this process that the most important thing is for them to stay in Tampa Bay. I believe an agreement reached sooner rather than later will ensure their continued future here.”

Of course, there are many issues to be addressed, like buying out the Trop lease, the future of the ballpark and how a new ballpark would be financed. Still, Foster’s change of heart is a major hurdle that’s been overcome.

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