The Tampa Bay Rays can begin the long-awaited process of looking for a new stadium site outside of St. Pete in Pinellas or Hillsborough County. St. Pete City Council approved a new Memorandum of Understanding 5-3.
Council voted as many expected with veteran council members and longtime deal naysayers Steve Kornell and Jim Kennedy rejecting the latest proposal. New council member Ed Montanari joined the two in voting against the deal.
Newly elected council member Lisa Wheeler-Brown was the deciding vote this time around. Her predecessor, Wengay Newton, was the fourth previous no-vote keeping a deal from moving forward.
The new MOU includes a maximum payout to the city should the Rays decide to vacate the Trop before the Use Agreement expires in 2027 is $24 million. That includes $4 million payable to the city in for 2018, $3 million for 2019-2022, and $2 million for 2023-2026. Under the agreement, the Rays can’t leave the city before 2018.
While monetary compensation to the city is roughly the same under the new deal as the original one rejected by council in early 2015, it does contain some enticements to keep the Rays in the ‘Burg.
If the Rays break their lease on Tropicana Field before it’s expired, St. Pete still would keep all of the development rights to the 85-acre swath of land. But if the Rays decide to call St. Pete home past the current Use Agreement, they would be entitled to half of that revenue plus interest from an interest-bearing escrow account.
Even if they chose to leave the city after the lease expires, the team could still keep half of the proceeds minus interest.
This serves as a valuable bargaining tool for the city in making a case for keeping the team on the St. Pete side of the Bay because it’s money that could be used to build a new stadium, estimated at a cost of $600 million.
“It also requires the team to give the city written notice of their intentions related to the stadium site or forfeit the funds that are in the escrow account,” Mayor Rick Kriseman said.
He explained that businesses shy away from area surrounding Tropicana Field because for years there has been uncertainty looming in the stadium saga. St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce President Chris Steinocher hammered that point home.
“Stalemate is not an option,” Steinocher said during public comment on the issue. “The business community demands certainty.”
And City Council member Charlie Gerdes, who has been in favor of reaching a deal with the Rays since 2012 said there have already been businesses the city has had to turn away from that site. Those, he lamented, are opportunities the city will never get back.
“You have to look at the opportunity, not the cost,” Gerdes continued.
But three City Council members did look at the cost. Kennedy scolded the media and even the Kriseman administration for continuing to push the deal as one worth $24 million if the team leaves.
“In reality, it’s probably closer to a $10 million number,” Kennedy said.
He explained that’s because the $24 million payout assumes the Rays leave Tropicana Filed in 2018. Kennedy said that scenario isn’t likely to happen, and instead, the team would leave, if that’s their determination, much later.
And Kornell, whose opposition to deals reached with the Rays have earned him a rabid attack from the Tampa Bay Times, returned fire on the newspaper questioning whether economic development on the Tropicana Field site is really worth the $1 billion the Times estimates.
Even Kriseman agreed that number was speculative, pending a detailed evaluation of the site.
That evaluation will be included in a Tropicana Field development master plan. The new agreement a requirement that the Rays pay up to $100,000 toward that plan refundable to the team if they paid the termination fee.
City Council member Karl Nurse has long been in favor of reaching an agreement with the Major League Baseball team, but that was a new provision he quite liked.
“Can we start tomorrow … please,” Nurse half-joked.
Kriseman explained the master plan will be developed in much the same way the city developed the downtown waterfront master plan. There the city held numerous public outreach events seeking comment from residents. They also held a Request for Proposal bidding process to select a firm to create the plan.
It’s a process that isn’t likely to happen overnight, but Kriseman did say the city would start the ball rolling right away.
Kriseman did not address members of the meeting immediately following the vote, but issued a statement later.
“I want to thank our City Council for approving this important Memorandum of Understanding with the Tampa Bay Rays. This agreement is good news for baseball fans, for our taxpayers, for the city of St. Petersburg, and for our entire region,” Kriseman said. I still believe the team’s current site, reimagined and redeveloped, is the best place for a new stadium, and I look forward to making the case for the Sunshine City.”
And Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg and President Brian Auld held a news conference at Tropicana Field immediately after the vote.
“We’re going to do everything we can to ensure baseball is here for a very long time,” Sternberg said.
That was a sentiment he echoed several times during remarks to City Council before the vote. During that address, Sternberg apologized for the long-running “rhetoric” and promised that all parties were working in the best interest of everyone.
While Sternberg maintained an overall positive attitude toward St. Pete as his baseball home, he did leave vague what exactly he meant by “here.” It wasn’t exactly clear whether he was specifically referencing St. Pete or being intentionally ambiguous so as not to rule out other parts of Pinellas or Hillsborough.
“I don’t’ have any nervousness or anticipation that it’s a scam to look other places,” Gerdes reaffirmed.
And during his conference, Sternberg gave no indication that he had already hit the go button. Asked whether he had any sites already in mind, Sternberg answered, “not yet.” Asked whether he had already received a call from Hillsborough County, Sternberg deflected the question saying he had not yet checked his phone.
Sternberg and Auld both said they aren’t sure how long it will take the team to develop a criteria for selecting a new site or keeping staying at the Trop though the approved MOU requires that criteria in writing within 60 days.
“We intend to take a completely fresh look at the stadium building process,” Auld said.
Sternberg also reminded reporters, this is the first time the team has been in this kind of situation.