Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg stood in front of the Pinellas County Commission Tuesday pleading his team's case to be able to look outside of the city limits of St. Petersburg for a new stadium for the Rays.
The Rays, he said, want to be able to follow up on the 2009 ABC Coalition report that explored options in Tampa and Pinellas for a new stadium.
"In the simplest of terms, we would like to follow up on the report," Sternberg told commissioners Tuesday. "We might find the best place is where we are right now. (However), I don’t imagine that’s the case."
A majority of commissioners expressed agreement with Sternberg's wish.
"This really saddens me that we have to have this conversation," said county commissioner Susan Latvala. "I wish it was the decision of this board to give you the ability to look around.
"It’s embarrassing that you are being treated this way in our community," Latvala added. "Being the responsible party, I hope that sometime in the near future you will be allowed to do what you need to do to remain viable."
"I respect the mayor and the office, but ... If the mayor allows you to look in other counties, I would be very supportive of that," said commission chair Ken Welch.
The commission and Sternberg, however, know that the Rays cannot look without the consent of the City of St. Petersburg.
Mayor Bill Foster and city have said the Rays are contractually obligated to remain at Tropicana Field until 2027. The city has threatened legal actions if the team looks for a new stadium outside St. Pete or the Gateway area.
Foster, who according to the Tampa Bay Times, had to leave the meeting Tuesday to go to Gainesville to meet with Sweetbay representatives over the Midtown store closing. He left a message with Welch to tell Sternberg his schedule is open to meet on Thursday.
The city maintains that opening up the contract with the Rays to allow them to look around outside of St. Pete would allow them to leave the Tampa Bay area entirely.
Sternberg said that is not his intent whatsoever. He told commissioners Thursday he plans on the Rays being in Tampa Bay for another 50-100 years.
"We are not asking for a nickel,'' Sternberg said Tuesday of a new stadium. "It's like going out to buy a car. I'm not asking how it is going to be financed. I just want to look around and see what kind of car we can drive.''
St. Pete Council Chair Karl Nurse said while he understands the Rays' wish to explore other stadium options, but there is one option on the table that would have no potential legal hang-ups — The "Rays Park at Carillon".
The ABC report Sternberg cited Tuesday named the Gateway area of St. Pete, which is where the proposed Rays Park at Carillon would be, as an ideal location for a new stadium.
"The challenge is to get past the stalemate,'' Nurse said. "I ask the Rays to take the first step, look at Carillon. It's a live proposal. There is a lot of detail there. Look at it knowing that we don’t know what the next step is.
"It at least gets it started," Nursed added. "I know it’s not the end solution."
It's All About Attendance
Sternberg said when he took over the team he was continually told to "just win" and the fans would come. After 2012, when the Major League Baseball commissioner called the Rays attendance "inexcusable", Sternberg said attendance at Tropicana Field is "not up to snuff" despite having a great five-year run on the field.
The Rays finished last in attendance in the MLB in 2012 with around 19,000 fans a game. To remain competitive at the Trop, Sternberg told commissioners the Rays need to be around league average, which is 30,000 a game.
As few as 300 Rays season ticket holders live in the city limits of St. Petersburg, Sternberg said.
"As time goes along, Major League Baseball, they are taking in an interest," said Sternberg of Rays attendance. "They are taking a real interest and it's important to Major League Baseball to see something done here."
"If we leave this room today and start this process tomorrow," Sternberg said of selecting a new stadium location. "It would take a good amount of time, working with all the people involved to try to figure out how to get this done. We are going to be at Tropicana Field a number of years regardless."
Rays Attendance Last 10 Years:
Average Per Game