Now, more than ever, it’s time to let the Rays go

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When the Tampa Bay Rays eventually break ground on their new stadium in downtown St. Pete or Tampa or Charlotte or the dark side of the moon, it may be this past week that will be viewed as the turning point in the Rays’ stadium saga.

That’s because two events that occurred far from the playing field are certain to shape the progress of the Rays’ efforts to build a new stadium.

The first one is the obvious one — the departure of Michael Kalt, the executive who has led the Rays’ search for a new stadium. He is leaving, obviously, having come really nowhere closer to his goal than when he took the job. If anything, the Rays may be further away from their dream of a new stadium in the heart of downtown Tampa than they’ve ever been.

There is just a tinge of irony that Kalt’s move was announced just two weeks after Bill Foster officially left office. Ironic in the same way the American hostages in Iran were released the day after Jimmy Carter left office. 

Both Kalt and Foster, neither of whom proved capable of negotiating who got the top bunk and who got the bottom, much less the future of city and a baseball franchise, are gone. So who steps in now? Obviously, Kriseman does for Foster, but who will be the Rays’ point man in any new negotiations? Maybe Stu Sternberg and Co. will put in another Tampaphile who yearns to drag the club across the Howard Frankland.

Or maybe the Rays owners will put in an honest broker, one who will be able to see that the hottest development and real estate spot, perhaps in all of Florida north of Alligator Alley, is downtown St. Pete. You know, the city the New York Times just listed as one of the top places in the world to visit. 

And it’s for that reason that the City of St. Pete should tell the Rays — now — “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out…”

Because the second major development that occurred last week was when the county tax collector announced that Pinellas had collected $30 million in tourist development taxes — also called bed taxes — in one calendar year. Accomplishing this means Pinellas will soon be designated a “high tourism impact” county and allowed to charge — and collect — more tourist development taxes. Boosting the tourist tax to 6 percent could raise another $6 million a year for the county.

Local government can sell bonds based on these bed taxes. That’s how construction of what is now known as Tropicana Field was first financed. But in 2015, as Jamal Thalji notesthe Trop debt will be paid off, freeing $6 million raised by the tourist tax. 

Do the math: $6 million more a year because of higher bed taxes on top of the $6 million a year freed up because the county is no longer paying off the Trop debt.

Do you know what can be done with $12 million a year bonded out?

Thalji mentions that boosters of the new Clearwater aquarium, a BMX complex in Oldsmar, keeping the Blue Jays spring training home in Dunedin are already lining up for the extra money, as will those who support earmarking the money for beach renourishmnent (it’s those beautiful beaches that are the real reason tourists come to Pinellas).

Why not do all of that and then some rather than pay for a stadium for a baseball team that doesn’t want to be here? Let them move across the Bay and we still get most of the benefits of having the team in the region with few of the costs.

Then redevelop the land where Tropicana Field now sits. One major local law firm is already banking on that development. Bring Jabil Circuit’s headquarters to downtown St. Pete and watch the beanstalk grow. And that’s without Greenlight Pinellas connecting it all.

It may even be best to let the Rays look at Hillsborough now before they figure out how invaluable they are to the future of the city. 

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.