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New Tampa Bay Rays deal not likely to look like old one

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman is planning a series of sit-downs with individual City Council members in hopes of earning support for a new deal with the Tampa Bay Rays to let the team search for new stadium sites outside of St. Pete.

The move is not surprising.

While Kriseman and his staff had no comment on the issue, it’s likely they’ve been counting the days until January. This weekend, two new council members will be sworn in. One of them is likely to swing the tide in Kriseman’s favor.

Council members Bill Dudley and Will Newton are leaving the dais due to term limits. Pilot Ed Montanari and community activist Lisa Wheeler-Brown replace them, respectively.

The Dudley/Montanari swap is a wash for the Kriseman administration – both were opposed to various deals to let the Major League Baseball team look. But Wheeler-Brown is much more cozy with the idea of supporting a deal.

With the current council deadlocked on a previous deal, Wheeler-Brown would like be Kriseman’s fifth “yes.”

But whatever deal Kriseman now has up his sleeve is likely to look a lot different than what he came up with in late 2014 or even the modified version of that deal that came later in 2015.

Originally, Kriseman and Rays’ president Brian Auld agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding that would have forced the team to pay a sliding scale fee to the city beginning at $4 million a year and reducing as the remaining use agreement became less valuable. That fee would only be assessed if the team played baseball somewhere else.

The original deal was suffocated in a crippling 5-3 vote. Later, Kriseman and Auld agreed to change wording in the MOU to ensure St. Pete maintained exclusive development rights to the Tropicana Field site should the team choose to vacate. That plan also died and the board has since been locked at 4-4 on the issue with Amy Foster swapping sides.

For months leading up to the election that decided Wheeler-Brown’s fate as a councilmember, her race was seen as Tampa Bay’s bellwether. A Wheeler-Brown victory translated to a Rays deal. Done.

But it’s not that simple. As Kriseman has put it in a couple of different forums including in a heated lashing to council earlier this year, deals don’t typically get better with time, they get worse.

What Kriseman means is, the more time that goes by, the more leverage the Rays have in bargaining. Its leverage was boosted yet again when the Pinellas County Commission dangled an $8 million carrot from tourist taxes that would be crucial in funding a new stadium should the Rays decide to stay in St. Pete.

So, with that in mind, Kriseman probably had an uphill battle in coming up with a new deal that wouldn’t come across to council and the public as a giant step backward.

It seems unlikely Kriseman would risk coming to council with anything less on the table than was previously there. Estimates on what compensation would look like if the Rays let St. Pete under the original deal were put at around $20 million or so.

Instead, it seems more likely Kriseman would recreate a deal altogether. It’s difficult to compare and contrast when the methodology of compensation is entirely different.

There are a lot of possibilities. First, Kriseman could tear a page out of Councilmember Charlie Gerdes’ book and think up some sort of you pay nothing if you stay in St. Pete clause and a sliding fee depending on where the team moves if it’s not St. Pete. i.e., the team pays more to move to Tampa than they would to stay in Pinellas.

There’s also the fee-to-look option. Under Kriseman’s original brokered deal, the Rays only paid if they decided to dump Tropicana Field. A search fee, of sorts, could soften the blow of an otherwise less lucrative deal for the city by guaranteeing profit whether or not the Rays stay in St. Pete.

It’s even possible that Kriseman and Auld are looking way outside the box. Could they be talking about new stadiums in St. Pete? The prospects for other locations are looking far less bright than one year ago. Jeff Vinik’s Channelside monster is no longer an option and Tampa leadership seems less able to offer any help in funding a stadium.

The bottom line is, anything is possible, but it’s not likely a new deal will resemble the old one. And Kriseman needs this to work. Time is running short.

The Rays have been itching to explore new stadium sites since 2009 after their waterfront stadium hopes were dashed by voters. Even without an approved deal yet, Kriseman has already made more ground than mayors before him. But without a deal signed with council’s seal of approval, his efforts are still for naught.

According to The Tampa Tribune, Kriseman did not have meetings with council members prior to the first vote on his original deal. He is wise to ensure those conversations occur before taking the issue to a public meeting. Another failed vote could prove detrimental to his administration.

While council has a meeting next week, a vote on a new deal isn’t expected until at least the Jan. 14 meeting.

Kriseman can expect support from Gerdes, Karl Nurse and Darden Rice almost without hesitation. Amy Foster and Wheeler-Brown are also likely to side with a deal. But Foster’s original no-vote and Wheeler-Brown’s lack of voting history are enough to pay attention to.

Montanari isn’t likely to side with a deal nor are longtime naysayers Jim Kennedy and Steve Kornell.

But again, with an all new deal likely, this is anyone’s ballgame.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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