TAMPA BAY, Fla. - Sitting down together for a rare joint interview, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Bill Foster spoke to 10 News about where they saw the Tampa Bay Rays' Stadium Saga heading.
Foster has threatened legal action for any party that interferes with St. Pete's contract that runs through 2027; Buckhorn has made numerous public comments about the potential for a Downtown Tampa baseball stadium.
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But when asked about the "obstructionist" labels some have bestowed upon Foster, Buckhorn actually applauded his counterpart's handling of the situation.
"Bill Foster has a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens that he represents," Buckhorn said. "I get everything that he's doing and everything that he said. I don't begrudge him one iota. He's doing exactly what he was elected to do: protect the interests of the city of St. Petersburg."
"That being said, if they somehow come to an agreement with Rays of a buyout - of a severing of that relationship - that's where the rest of us, who are not involved in this contractual relationship, would have a role to play."
Buckhorn repeated that he won't interfere with St. Pete's contract with the Rays as long as the relationship exists.
Foster, meanwhile, addressed questions about his 2009 campaign platform of helping the Rays build a new stadium. He told 10 News on the campaign trail that the Rays would leave town if they didn't have a new stadium by the time the bonds were paid off on Tropicana Field in 2016.
"I think the economy, certainly, is hindering anyone's desire to publicly finance a new stadium," Foster said, explaining his hesitation to rush a new stadium project. "The city of Miami has killed (motivation) for the state of Florida when it comes to publicly-financed stadiums. And I think the idea of having to redevelop (the current Tropicana Field footprint of) 85 acres...we're not coming out of that recession yet."
Foster indicated redeveloping the current Tropicana Field site - part of the failed plan for a new waterfront stadium in 2008 - would not be easy. Earlier this week, Rays Vice President Michael Kalt told the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners that redeveloping the site was a big opportunity for taxpayers to recoup some of their Tropicana Field investment.
Foster says his door has been open to the Rays and hopes to catch up with principal owner Stu Sternberg in upcoming weeks. His recent efforts have been to discuss the possibilities of the Carillon stadium proposal. Multiple studies have indicated the number of residents living within 30-minutes of Carillon are similar to the number living within 30-minutes of Downtown Tampa.
"I just want to make sure St. Petersburg and Pinellas County are recognized as part of Tampa Bay," Foster said. "We're not competing with Tampa; those days are long gone."
Buckhorn agreed and said the mayors would continue to try and encourage the business community to buy more Rays tickets. The team has indicated a lack of business support - especially from Downtown St. Pete - has made a huge difference in their attendance numbers.
But neither Foster nor Buckhorn said they knew if the Rays' financial situation was dire. The team had the league's worst attendance numbers in 2012 but is believed to receive tens of millions of dollars in MLB revenue sharing.
"I would also like to hear how much the Rays are willing to commit as far as their resources for the construction of a new stadium 15 years premature; or 10 years premature," Foster said.
When asked about estimated contributions to - and revenues from - a new stadium, Sternberg told 10 News the team didn't know yet.
But with one of the league's best records in recent years and most disappointing performances at the gate, the Rays seem convinced Downtown St. Pete won't work much longer.
Mayor Buckhorn admitted problems exist.
"There are reasons, whatever they may be, that fans have difficulty crossing 'the bridge,' " Buckhorn said, referencing the Howard Frankland Bridge that spans Tampa Bay. "Whether it's just historic, cultural, I don't know what it is. But the reality is, it exists.
"Could (a new stadium) work in Tampa? Possibly, possibly; but until something happens in St. Pete, it won't matter."
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Buckhorn was asked if the Buccaneers - among the NFL's three worst-drawing teams for three straight years - were in danger of relocating if attendance didn't improve at Raymond James Stadium.
"I don't see them moving," Buckhorn said of the Bucs. "Part of it is they are locked into a long-term contract; they've proven they can succeed here; and the valuation of that team is probably eightfold since the Glazers bought the team."
"We really wrote the (Bucs') contract for the duration to make sure they were locked in," Buckhorn continued. "The public paid for that stadium; the entire stadium; lock, stock, & barrel."
When asked if a long-term contract and estimated franchise appreciation were enough to keep the Rays from leaving, Buckhorn said he wasn't privy to the team's contract with St. Petersburg.
But Foster said he was confident the team wasn't going anywhere.
Rays executives have pledged their commitment to the region, but indicated Major League Baseball has grown frustrated and could relocate or contract the team.
"Out legal staff spent a lot of time making sure," Foster said, "that - whether its an attendance clause, some perks that come back to the cities, or some things that we would forego - we make sure that the contracts are pretty solid."
Foster said he didn't anticipate any dramatic changes in the stadium rhetoric in the short-term, but welcomes discussions with Sternberg. In the meantime, he's counting on Rays attendance to pick up again.
"Andrew Friedman, Matt Silverman, and Joe Maddon," said Foster, mentioning the Rays' top executives and manager, "they are putting together an incredible product every single year."
"Coming out of this recession, you're going to see an uptick in ticket sales," Buckhorn agreed. "I think you're going to see an uptick in attendance, and hopefully - in the case of some of the teams - an uptick in performance on the field."
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