St. Pete mayoral candidates differ on Rays’ split-season plan

Pinellas County

Tampa Bay Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier, middle, is congratulated after scoring a run against the Detroit Tigers duirng the second inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Jose Juarez)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) — With only five games left in the regular season, the Tampa Bay Rays are on the brink of greatness potentially setting a team franchise record for wins.

But as fans gear up for the playoffs, they got an untimely reminder of the team’s uncertain future just hours before the Rays clinch the AL East.

“One new thing I wanted to mention: for the postseason, we’re gonna add a sign in the rightfield foul territory with a very simple ‘Tampa Bay/Montreal’ graphic,” Rays president Matt Silverman said Saturday afternoon on This Week in Rays Baseball.

Backlash from fans was swift, and by Tuesday, Rays owner Stu Sternberg had canceled plans for the sign.

“I made a big mistake, a real mistake trying to promote our sister city plan with a sign right now in our home ballpark,” said Sternberg on the Rays pregame show with Neil Solondz.

The future of the Rays — and what would happen to the Tropicana Field site should the team move — is one of the biggest hot-button issues in the runoff for St. Petersburg mayor.

8 On Your Side asked Ken Welch, former Pinellas County Commissioner, and Robert Blackmon, current St. Pete city council member, what they thought of the Rays split-season plan with Montreal.

“I’ve never been crazy about the split-season model,” said Blackmon. “But we need to look at again what the responsibilities and duties of a mayor are. So it’s not a mayor or a city government’s responsibility to tell a private business how to run their business. My job is to look for the best civic value I can get. If they have a split season, as long as it’s made up for with baseball, soccer and spring training all combined into one, then yeah, go nuts, because we’re not gonna have to run it. But we want the catalyst for development. We want the exciting tourism dollars to come in around a new, multi-use stadium. So if they want to do a split season, they think they can work out logistics, more power to them. It’s not my personal preference, but I wouldn’t stand in the way of that.”

Welch had a slightly different take on the matter when asked if he supported the split-season model.

“I do, and the facts and the science are the reason I support that,” Welch said. “I didn’t like the way it was rolled out. It was actually rolled out the day we had a joint meeting between the county commission and the tourist development council to secure that sixth cent [tourism tax], and on the way back I get a call from the Rays saying they’re going to have a press conference to announce this split-season idea.”

“Once you get past that gut-punch and the ego issue, one thing we do well in Pinellas County is spring training,” said Welch. “The relationship with the Blue Jays and Toronto, the relationship with the Phillies in Clearwater. Our tourism professionals love that — that ‘sister city’ relationship, folks come down, they buy apartments/condos down here, and it is a year-round operation with minor league and with rehab for both those ball clubs. So I see a real path for that to work. We have to be open and flexible and innovative. And we do have to address the attendance issue, so I’m open to that split-season idea.”

8 On Your Side is hosting a debate between Welch and Blackmon online at WFLA NOW on Oct. 11 at 7:30 pm. Political reporter Evan Donovan will moderate the debate.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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