St. Pete City Council rejects Rays agreement

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St. Pete City Council rejected the agreement between Mayor Rick Kriseman and the Tampa Bay Rays that would have allowed the Major League Baseball franchise to look outside of St. Petersburg in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for a new stadium site.

Only three council members – Darden Rice, Karl Nurse and Charlie Gerdes – voted in favor of the Memorandum of Understanding that would have required the Rays to pay an annual fee each year it played games outside the city of St. Petersburg. Five council members – Steve Kornell, Wengay Newton, Amy Foster, Jim Kennedy and Bill Dudley – voted against the mayor’s agreement.

“We are obviously disappointed with the City Council’s decision today. Our goal was to begin a collaborative, exploratory process in our region to determine the best location for a next generation ballpark,” Rays president Brian Auld wrote in a statement following the vote. “The Council has instead decided that the status quo is what is in the best interest of the citizens of St. Petersburg.”

Mayor Kriseman pushed heavily for the agreement arguing it was the city’s best shot at protecting taxpayers through financial compensation should the Rays ultimately decide to move out of St. Pete, while still maintaining a working relationship with the Rays to keep them in Tampa Bay well beyond the terms of the team’s current contract with the city.

Under the proposal, the Rays would have had to pay $4 million a year until 2018 if they played any games outside the city. After 2018, the team would pay $3 million a year until 2022 and then $2 million a year until 2026. The idea was the contract for the Rays to play ball in Tropicana Field becomes less valuable as the terms get closer to sunset.

Under aggressive predictions, assuming the Rays left St. Pete, that agreement would have meant $24 million for the city if the team played somewhere else in 2018. A more likely estimate would be $17 million if that time frame was pushed back to 2020.

Critics of the agreement argued the plan was too easy on the Rays who would be forking over only a fraction of the team’s annual revenue. One of those critics was prominent St. Pete business owner Mark Ferguson. He owns Ferg’s sports bar and grille across the street from Tropicana Field. On any given game day Ferg’s is packed to the brim with fans pre-gaming on cheaper-than-stadium beer and hot wings. It stays packed long after the first pitch as fans without tickets stick around to watch the game on any number of big screen TVs and then gets even more packed after the game as fans stumble through the tunnel connecting Ferg’s to the Trop for post-game libations.

“The proposed settlement is not enough to compensate for $250 million in economic benefits in St. Pete every year nor does it make up for the potential 3,000 lost jobs,” Ferguson said.

But he also noted, every time the Rays play in Tropicana field it’s a free four-hour commercial for the city that likely leads fans from other teams to plan vacations in St. Pete. His point: St. Pete needs to hold on to the Rays for dear life. According to Mayor Kriseman though, city council’s rejection of the deal that was 7-years in the making could be the nail that drives the Rays out of his city.

“St. Petersburg and the entire Tampa Bay region stand to lose our Major League Baseball team and receive nothing in return,” Kriseman said after the vote.

Kriseman was visibly angry. He praised the three council members who voted in favor of the agreement, thanking them for being brave while implying the others had pandered to naysayers.

“The Rays made it very clear that the deal that was put on the table that was in front of council today was as good as it’s going to get,” Kriseman said. “From my perspective, I don’t know what I can go back to them with. My suspicion is it isn’t going to be better than what we had today.”

Most council members were unclear during debate about where they stood on the issue. Charlie Gerdes and Darden Rice said they would vote yes. Nurse wasn’t clear. Of the no-votes, only Wengay Newton said he would vote against the agreement.

City Council member Amy Foster said she hadn’t decided even after grilling Auld about the team’s intentions to stay in Tampa Bay. During testimony he said the Rays were committed to staying in the area, but she claimed he said otherwise in her office.

“I cannot say with 100% certainty that we’re going to be able to find a financing plan that is amendable to this community and when I say community I mean the region as a whole, I mean, either county, I mean every city. What this agreement does is give us the best possible chance to remain in the Tampa Bay area for generations to come,” Auld said in response to Foster’s questioning.

No one said so, but the uncertainty that the Rays will stay somewhere in the region did make waves. There was also concern about a provision in the Rays contract and in the Memorandum of Understanding about future development on the Tropicana Field site.

The site includes not just the land the actual dome sits on, but also the land surrounding it that is currently used for parking. If the city begins developing on that area they are contractually obligated to split proceeds with the Rays. Council members were concerned about the Rays reluctance to amend the MOU to include language allowing the city to keep profit from such development if the Rays weren’t going to stay in St. Pete.

It’s unclear where the city will go now as it pertains to negotiations with the Rays. Without the MOU, the two parties are back to where they started – the Rays bound by a contract that doesn’t allow them to look for other stadium sites and the city with a baseball team itching itching to pack their bags.

What council did accomplish during its discussion was potential movement on a new stadium for the Rays. The council voted unanimously to workshop ideas on how to plan for that prospect.

For now though, the mayor said he doesn’t have immediate plans to meet with the Rays leadership.

“People elect our council members to make big decisions,” Kriseman said. “Rather than make a decision, they scheduled a workshop. That’s not leadership.”

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.