Pinellas Commissioners more receptive to a Rays move than St. Pete

01/30/13 Janelle Irwin
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Pinellas County Commissioners went against St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster Tuesday during a discussion with Tampa Bay Rays owners about where the team will play if they leave Tropicana Field. Most commissioners said they didn’t mind if the franchise explored locations within the region that weren’t in St. Pete. Chair Ken Welch said the city could even benefit.

“There’s so many infrastructure needs that exist that could be, I think, addressed if we can all come to a holistic conclusion here that quite frankly includes if St. Pete agrees to some amount of compensation - and I know the Mayor and I are in different places on that – to help fund some of the other needs in the community and still keep baseball in our community. I think that’s the kind of framework that to me makes sense.”

The Tampa Bay Rays are under contract with the city of St. Pete to play at Tropicana Field through 2027. St. Pete Mayor Foster has said he would entertain the idea of the team moving if they stayed in the city, but that’s about all he would budge. Commissioner Susan Latvala said she hoped something could be worked out.

“Again, it’s embarrassing that you’re being treated this way in our community and I wish I had the ability to change it.”

The problem is the team has been drawing less than 20,000 fans at most games. Stu Sternberg, the team’s principal owner, wants at least 30,000 – the league’s average.

“People that come or purchase – businesses or individuals that purchase tickets to a full season package are really the life blood of any organization in baseball – the thirty teams – and even the other sports franchises.”

Even though downtown stadiums are becoming the trend, the team says St. Pete residents only hold 300 season ticket accounts. Teams like the Baltimore Orioles and the San Francisco Giants have been successful with getting fans to their games. But Sternberg said that’s not working in St. Pete.

“Well, I think if there’s some growth downtown potentially it could have been helpful, but it’s also the surrounding areas and how many people are within thirty minutes driving distance as we like to refer to it.”

The team is considering a stadium in the Carillon business district just south of Ulmerton Boulevard near I-275. It’s surrounded by major employers like the Home Shopping Network and Raymond James. Carillon could increase season ticket accounts from businesses, but would still be a problem for Hillsborough residents who’d have to cross the busy Howard Frankland Bridge. Sternberg said the team hasn’t decided on any location, but wants to look at all of their options. Regardless, Matt Silverman, the Rays’ president said the team is serious about staying in the region.

“About a quarter of them come from Pinellas County, about a third from Hillsborough County and the remainder from the rest of the Tampa Bay area and some outside. But we’ve made a point to become the region’s team. And when we talk about the region, it’s the seven counties in Tampa Bay, but it also extends down to Port Charlotte and down into Fort Myers and into Naples. We want to be their team.”

Pinellas County Commissioners have a stake in what happens to the Rays even though the lease is with St. Pete because they technically own Tropicana Field. The County also underwrote some of the stadium’s financing through its bed tax. Some of the commissioners asked what could be done to boost game attendance. Silverman said the team is already doing a lot.

“We have some of the friendliest policies in all of professional sports. We allow our fans to bring food and beverages if they don’t want to purchase them from our concession area. We offered free parking for a year and still, today, have free parking on Sundays for families and one of the things we’re most proud of is that we’re recognized as one of the most affordable experiences in professional sports.”

The team is also innovative with game day promotions. Last year they handed out a bear with the face of Rays’ assistant coach Don Zimmer called the Zimm Bear. Despite its reception among fans as being kind of creepy, it was a hit. The franchise also started doing post-game concerts at Saturday games. But it still hasn’t boosted attendance.

“If marketing could determine attendance, we’d be drawing 2.5 million fans annually, but it doesn’t despite all the efforts we have on and off the field, but it doesn’t discourage us, it only makes us work harder.”

Silverman appealed to wallets when he and other owners repeatedly pointed out that the property where Tropicana Field is located could earn St. Pete a lot of money. They weren’t specific about where they wanted to go, but they were clear of one thing – it’s not going to be Tropicana Field. St. Pete City Council chair Karl Nurse who spoke to commissioners at the end of the presentation asked for only one thing.

“I think the challenge is, how do you get past the stalemate? And to me – it reminds me a little bit of the world’s most difficult problem which is, how do you settle the Middle East? And the answer is, you take the first step. I would ask the Rays and the city to take the first step. And candidly, the first step is to look at Carillon.”

It’s the only solution, so far, that keeps the Rays in St. Pete. Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long asked owner Stuart Sternberg about future talks with Mayor Foster.

“It’s pretty clear to me that, through the conversations that there would be no movement.”

“Be no what?

“Be no movement.”

“So what would it take to…”

“I don’t know.”

Mayor Foster left the meeting early, but through Commissioner Welch suggested another meeting on Thursday. Sternberg didn’t say whether he’d make that happen so soon, but did say another meeting is in order.

Previous coverage of the Rays

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