With concerns over the future of the Tampa Bay Rays reaching a new level, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan thinks it's time to convene a regional discussion about the baseball team.
Hagan said Wednesday that he will contact government leaders on both sides of the bay in the next two weeks to invite them to an open session about how best to keep the Rays in the region.
Potential participants would include representatives of the Hillsborough and Pinellas County commissions, and the mayors and city councils of St. Petersburg and Tampa.
Others could include representatives of business organizations such as local chambers of commerce and the Tampa Bay Partnership.
St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Karl Nurse and Ken Welch, chairman of the Pinellas County Commission, both said they would be interested in taking part. However, Welch said the meeting may be premature while St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster remains at odds with the team over its contract to play at Tropicana Field.
Also expressing an interest in a meeting was Bob Rohrlack, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
The impetus for the meeting, Hagan said, are statements the team's principal owner, Stuart Sternberg, made to the Hillsborough and Pinellas commissions in the past week. Sternberg said the Rays want to stay in the area but Major League Baseball might force a sale or move because of low attendance.
"I sense we currently have momentum on our side, plus the reality of what Mr. Sternberg stated, that at some point in time this is going to be out of his hands," Hagan said. "Major League Baseball is going to intervene and solve it their way. I would think if nothing else that would tell us we do need to begin making progress immediately."
Hagan said he must first check with Hillsborough County Attorney Chip Fletcher to make sure he is not putting the county in legal jeopardy by organizing a meeting.
Foster has threatened to sue anyone who tries to lure the Rays away from Tropicana Field, where the team has a contract to play through 2027.
Nurse, the St. Petersburg City Council chairman, said he would be happy to take part, although he was unsure whether Foster would join him.
"I'm sure our city lawyers will have some discomfort with the conversation, but you have to start the conversation," Nurse said.
Local leaders have floated $500 million as the potential cost of a new stadium. Raising that amount of money in an economy still struggling to recover from recession would require a regional solution, Nurse said.
"Neither St. Petersburg nor Tampa could afford to buy a stadium by themselves," Nurse said. "If something is going to happen, it's going to require some regional help or a combination of public and private funding."
Both Pinellas County and St. Petersburg are still paying off the cost of building the Trop. Pinellas County's bonds will be paid down by 2015. By then, the county's portion of the stadium bill will have reached $119 million, records show.
Fresh from the commission's meeting with Sternberg and the Rays executive team Tuesday, Welch said a joint meeting makes sense in the long term but it may have to wait until Foster and Sternberg resolve their differences.
"I'd be interested in the scope and the goals of this specific meeting but until Mayor Foster and Stu Sternberg get together and come to some agreement we'll be very restricted in what we can discuss," Welch said.
Rohrlack, the Tampa chamber CEO, was a member of the Baseball Stadium Financing Caucus, a group formed by the Tampa and St. Petersburg chambers that studied ways to fund a new stadium for the Rays. They concluded the best option would be to form a regional authority to raise tax money for a stadium from more than one county or city.
Rohrlack said he wants the chamber to be involved in any discussion with a goal of keeping the Rays in the area.
"The Rays are a Tampa Bay asset," Rohrlack said. "How we can keep them in the Tampa Bay area and help them be successful is of vital importance to us because they are commerce driver as well as a source of community pride."
Sternberg and other team officials have indicated they are unlikely to stay at Tropicana Field through the end of their lease.
The team blames the stadium's location and antiquated structure for the Rays' inability to draw fans to the ballpark. Though fielding a winning team for the past five years, the Rays were last in major league attendance in 2012.
Hagan said he was "blown away" to learn that Sternberg told Pinellas commissioners just 300 season ticket accounts are from St. Petersburg.
"I don't know what the magic number is, but I can tell you I seriously doubt there is any other sports franchise in the country that has less season ticket holders from their city," Hagan said.
"And that's just further indication that their current location is a failed business model."