Tampa Bay Rays
Baker bristles at Rays move from St. Pete
TAMPA - Will the Tampa Bay Rays be coming to downtown Tampa? Not if St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has anything to say about it. A group studying whether the baseball team should leave Tropicana Field has included three sites in Hillsborough County - downtown Tampa, the West Shore district and the state fairgrounds east of downtown - in a list of potential locations for a new stadium. Since the Rays withdrew plans for a waterfront facility in downtown St. Petersburg last year, the A Baseball Community coalition, which is headed by Progress Energy CEO Jeff Lyash, has been searching for a new home for the Mayor League Baseball team.Until now, the coalition has not publicly raised the option of moving across the Bay, and the revelation could reignite old-rivalries between Hillsborough and Pinellas officials. Baker said he thinks the coalition has strayed from its original mission by expanding the search to locations outside the city. He is vowing to challenge, in a courtroom if necessary, any attempts by the Rays to move away. "Our expectation and intention is that the Rays will continue to play in St. Petersburg," Baker said. "I think it's a pretty clear position." Baker emphasized that position in a June 8 letter to Lyash, in which he specifically addressed the possibility the committee was studying areas outside the city. "Any consideration of sites or market trade areas outside of St. Petersburg at any time would be inconsistent with the objective which I initially set forth to help baseball succeed in St. Petersburg and should not be entertained," Baker wrote. Mayor Pam Iorio said she has no intention of trying to lure the Rays away. "We are one region and I am supportive of the surrounding counties and the assets they have," Iorio said. "If the Rays conclude that a site in Hillsborough better serves their long-term needs, it will be based on their own analysis, not an overture from Tampa." Although the coalition isn't addressing the issue of funding, taxpayers likely would be asked to pick up some of the tab, no matter where it is built. With the city and county both facing record budget shortfalls, spending tax dollars on a new stadium could be a hard sell. "I just don't see it happening," Tampa City Council chairman Tom Scott, also a member of the Tampa Sports Authority board, said of the possibility of a new stadium downtown. "It would have to be financially feasible to do it, but even then, I just don't know where they'd put it." Rays officials declined to delve into specifics about potential stadium sites, with the team's point man, senior vice president Michael Kalt, making a general statement. "We think it's a positive that the ABC Coalition will be issuing its findings shortly and we look forward to reviewing them, along with the rest of the community," Kalt said. The coalition - which has only one member from Hillsborough, Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes - is studying income levels in neighborhoods surrounding these five so-called "trade areas" to determine whether the demographics would support a stadium. The two other areas on the list are downtown St. Petersburg and on a 15-acre site in the Carillon Town Center mixed use community in east central Pinellas, which is considered to be one of the better locations. Renovating or rebuilding Tropicana Field is also being considered as an option. A preliminary report examining each of the potential areas is expected in mid-July. Some have deemed the domed Tropicana Field, built in the mid-1980s, as obsolete despite millions of dollars spent on improvements by team owner Stuart Sternberg. Attendance at the field also has been disappointing, even though the Rays made it to the World Series last year. The Rays rank 25th in attendance out of 30 teams with an average of 22,524 fans a game. By contrast, the Philadelphia Phillies, who defeated the Rays in last year's World Series, rank second in Major League Baseball with an average of 43,785 fans a game. The lack of hometown support has Rays officials openly scratching their heads. Rays manager Joe Maddon bemoaned the fact that the crowd for the series opener against the Phillies this week seemed to be tilted toward the opponents. "We still have our loyalists that do come out and support us and they're very good, but it's kind of awkward when you get to this position and all of a sudden the majority of the crowd is for the other side," Maddon said after the game. St. Petersburg and Pinellas worked hard to land the major league franchise nearly 14 years ago, despite efforts from Tampa and Hillsborough officials to do the same. The Rays also have a contractual agreement that keeps them in St. Petersburg until 2027, and city and county leaders will likely fight to keep the team in their backyard. "Not surprisingly, I'm less than enthusiastic about that idea," said St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse, whose district includes Tropicana Field. In a Jan. 12 letter to the coalition, St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe said Mayor Baker would challenge in court any attempts by the Rays to move outside the city limits. If the Rays do decide to move, the city could ask a judge for an injunction stopping them from doing so, Wolfe's letter says. If a judge lets the Rays go, the team could be responsible for repaying bonds used to build Tropicana Field. "The mayor has indicated that as part of the facility evaluation process, he would consider as options, along with the current site, potential future sites for a stadium within St. Petersburg," the letter says. "Needless to say, the city would not even consider an amendment to the agreement for a venue outside the city."
Reporter Christian M. Wade can be reached at (813) 259-7679.