St. Petersburg officials have maintained for years they believe the Tampa Bay Rays franchise will eventually come to its senses and opt to stay in the city, preferably in the same place where Tropicana Field stands today.
It was refreshing, then, to hear St. Petersburg City Council Chair Darden Rice acknowledge reality Monday night during a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
“I want to keep the Rays here, too, but they don’t want to stay,” Rice said in response to a question about what she would do specifically to keep the club in the city.
City officials and the Rays agreed in January 2016 to allow the team to explore a possible new home in Hillsborough County. The results of that search are expected to be announced soon, although probably not until the municipal election concludes in November.
Rice also acknowledged another unpleasant elephant in the room about the Rays — for yet another year, the team is set to finish last in attendance, averaging 15,597 per game.
“We need higher ticket sales. Hello? I mean, they’re down like 10,000 – 12,000 seats every game,” Rice said. “We need our corporate businesses to step up to help with ticket sales, but so far that just hasn’t been cutting it, so we have to be a partner and work with them.”
Rice said she knows the team is doing its due diligence, and wants them to know they have a home at the Tropicana Field site if they want. But …
“Realistically, let’s just be honest, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” she said. “We’re winners anyway with that 85 acres of redevelopment, with or without a stadium. With or without a baseball team.”
District 2 candidate Barclay Harless was the only other candidate who echoed Rice’s sentiments.
“I just don’t think they want to stay,” he said, adding that if he was on the Council two years ago he would have voted in support to allow the team to explore other venues.
Former Rays manager Joe Maddon weighed in on the years-old stadium saga last week, insisting that a new stadium be built in Tampa.
“Its got to be on the other side of the pond, man,” he told reporters before his Chicago Cubs played the Rays last Tuesday. “It just has to be. I think downtown Tampa. Listen, I live over there … I think if it goes on that side you have a much better chance of the late-day, employment group, people that work until 5 or 6:00, showing up.”
The Rays and the city have agreed to split the revenue that would be derived from selling development rights to the 85 acres of Tropicana Field. Mayor Rick Kriseman has indicated that he’d use that money to pay for the bonds to build a new park for the Rays.
Most of the other candidates at the forum were adamant that, while they all wanted the team to stay in the city, they would have to do it without taxpayer subsidies.