Rays execs tell Pinellas commissioners they want stadium options
CLEARWATER - Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said the team needs crowds equal to the league average of 30,000 to remain competitive long-term. And that, he told Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday, is not going to happen in St. Petersburg, where, he said, only one-quarter of Rays fans live and there are only 300 season ticket accounts for the upcoming season. "It’s just not up to snuff," Sternberg said. Some county commissioners seem to accept that allowing the Rays to cross the bay might be the only way to keep the team in the region.That is despite warnings from St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster that the city will sue anyone trying to lure the team away from Tropicana Field, where the Rays are contracted to play through 2027. "If the mayor comes to a point where he allows you to look at both counties, I would be very supportive of that because I don’t see another way forward," said Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch. The Rays are only asking to follow up on a 2008 study on regional stadium locations, Sternberg said. "I don’t know exactly what we’re going to find out there," Sternberg said. "We might find the best place is where we are right now. I don’t expect that." Sternberg was referencing a study by ABC Coalition, a panel of local civic and business leaders, which found the best ballpark locations were in the Gateway area of St. Petersburg, Tampa’s West Shore Business District and downtown Tampa and not in St. Petersburg. Team officials have said they cannot succeed financially at Tropicana Field. Despite having one of baseball’s more successful teams on the field, attendance has lagged at or near the bottom among major league cities. Sternberg told commissioners there needs to be a sense of urgency in the stadium discussion. He also does not expect any further discussions with Foster to be fruitful. "It’s pretty clear to me there would be no movement," Sternberg said. The impasse with the city angered some on the county commission. Commissioner Susan Latvala asked what the county could do to restore Major League Baseball’s faith in Pinellas. "It’s embarrassing you’re being treated in this way in our community," she said. MLB officials have warned that the status quo is not sustainable. Yet Sternberg told commissioners he is committed to the area, as he said last week to Hillsborough County commissioners. "I want to be here. I want our franchise to be here," he told the Pinellas commissioners. "We have focused on the lack of attendance. I do want to point out that all the people that come out to Tropicana Field is a lot of people. A million and a half people is a lot. … I don’t take that lightly." Sternberg said he is open to a stadium in Pinellas County, though he would not specifically talk about building one in the Carillon area. A proposal to build a stadium there went nowhere last year. Foster and several St. Petersburg City Council members attended the meeting. City Council Chairman Karl Nurse said the city and the council each spent more than $100 million building the stadium. At the meeting, Nurse called on the Rays to seriously consider the Carillon site, which he said would make the Rays more accessible to Hillsborough residents. Even so, he said, he doubts the Rays can meet their attendance target. "I don’t think they can get to 30,000 in any part of the Bay area," Nurse said. City officials said Foster is available to meet with Sternberg as soon as Thursday, and Welch encouraged Sternberg to arrange a meeting. The Rays owner said he would meet with Foster, though likely not on Thursday. Rays Senior Vice President Michael Kalt talked about attendance issues at Tropicana Field. Demographics play a part in the lackluster numbers, he said, noting that St. Petersburg is only the fourth-largest employment center in the region. Last week, Sternberg told Hillsborough commissioners that "Major League Baseball doesn't believe anymore in the Tampa Bay area." However, Sternberg said he thinks the team can be successful in the area in a new stadium in the proper location and reach his attendance goals. "I believe in baseball," he said. "I think it’s a very reasonable goal."
[email protected] (727) 215-7654 Twitter: @codonnellTBO