ST. PETERSBURG - What started as a double-header between St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County in the quest for the Tampa Bay Rays has now become a triple-play, as Pinellas County has officially entered the game.
All three hope to avoid striking out with the team, even though it's still unknown what plans the Rays may have for the future. The team is obligated to play in Tropicana Field until 2027, but poor attendance and the stadium's quirky design have become a sore subject for the ball club.
Pinellas county leaders agreed to open discussions with the Rays about resolving a long-term strategy, but allowing the team to move into neighboring Hillsborough county is not among the solutions they envision.
"I don't see the pragmatics behind the regional concept of everything being in Tampa," said Norm Roche, a Pinellas county commissioner. "It's sort of oxymoronic to the concept of region," Roche said.
Pinellas county took action just days after the Hillsborough board of commissioners voted to open talks with the Rays. County attorneys have been careful to point out that the dialogue won't be about breaking a usage agreement with the city of St. Petersburg, which could create legal problems.
Instead, the discussions are supposed to center around what the Rays have in mind. So far no specifics are on the table. Still, St. Petersburg's mayor remained contentious about any talks about the Rays' future that doesn't include his city.
"Will I consent to a dialogue? No, that's just not going to happen," said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. He said the bottom line is that the major league franchise has an existing deal with St. Petersburg, pure and simple.
"It is 15 more seasons. Not one, not five, not ten. Fifteen major league seasons at Tropicana Field," Foster said.
Roche believes that a combined effort between Pinellas county and St. Petersburg is the best strategy to fend off regional players like Hillsborough from stealing the Rays.
"They are our team. That's where we start from," Roche said. "Thumping chests and making veiled threats and promises isn't going to bring us a solution to this," he said.
While no specific plan has been revealed, several Pinellas commissioners were hesitant to commit money for a new ballpark, citing the struggling economy. Some suggested a public-private partnership with the team, but the costs for a new facility are staggering. It's estimated the number for a retractable dome-style stadium to be near $750 million.
St. Petersburg and the state are already paying back $200 million spent for Tropicana Field. Mayor Foster said that's exactly why his city deserves the team.
"Twenty years ago not one person from the city of Tampa and their government thought it was valid enough to build this stadium and to commit their taxpayers to get major league baseball," he said.
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