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The Rays deal: What does it all mean?

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

It’s been a little more than a year since the first round of Rick Kriseman administration excitement over a proposed deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. Closing out his first year in office, St. Pete’s mayor managed to emerge from Tropicana Field practically holding hands with Brian Auld, the team’s president, with a deal in hand.

Queue the City Council rejection.

Since then the saga has been a whirlwind of Kriseman’s testy comments to stubborn council members who refused to support his deal and the area’s biggest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, ensuring that political life in the ‘Burg lives and dies by the Tampa Bay Rays.

And now here we are again. The Times Editorial Board is probably salivating over the latest Memorandum of Understanding brokered by Kriseman and Auld and probably a slew of attorneys. Kriseman himself is probably doing a jig in his home in anticipation of a victory in what will likely be the defining moment of his term.

Hillsborough County has the team on speed dial waiting to hit send the second City Council approves the latest.

So, what’s so different this time around and why is the outcome likely to go the way of Kriseman?

First of all, he’s got Lisa Wheeler-Brown now. Before he had Wengay Newton. Say what you will about either one of their merits as council people, this issue is the one that sets them apart. Wheeler-Brown is almost certainly a yes vote where Newton would have been a no.

Not much else has changed on the Rays voting dynamic so, with her, Kriseman’s deal is a go.

Obvious aside, there’s also the deal itself. The maximum $24 million payout should the team break its lease is nothing to write home about. And it’s most likely not enough to change the minds of Steve Kornell and Jim Kennedy who have dreams of raking in far more from the team. But it is enough to pass.

First, it’s not less than what was originally agreed on and second, it dangles a carrot for the team’s leadership to stay their Major League Baseball behinds right here in St. Pete.

If they stay, they get half of whatever development proceeds accrue in what would be a mandatory interest-bearing escrow account, plus half. And since the city has to leave the money growing in an untouchable account, it’s potential funding for a stadium above and beyond the bed tax money that’s also likely to be available.

Tampa has no such carrot.

And then there’s also this – it’s just time already. Kornell and Kennedy’s hearts were in the right place when they demanded more from the Rays. They really were just looking out for taxpayers’ interests. And their ideas certainly didn’t deserve the ire drawn by the Tampa Bay Times. Basically, I’ve heard it described like this – never has a landlord tried so hard to let its tenant out of a lease with so little ramification. That’s probably along the lines of what the Kornells and Kennedys of the ‘Burg are thinking.

But, take whether or not baseball stays in St. Pete or even the region out of the equation. Set down your pennant and lucky hat and put down the beer. Whether they stay or go, there is 85 acres (90 if you count the parking lot across the street) of developable land at the city’s fingertips.

Under the Mayor’s MOU, they could start tapping into that vast, and I do mean vast, resource almost immediately and not have to pay the Rays a dime if they decide to leave before their term is up.

Without a deal, the team is entitled to half of the development proceeds if the city starts developing before they’re out. So, under Kornell and Kennedy’s logic, no development until 2027. That may not have seemed such a bad idea when the whole priority was just to keep the Rays in St. Pete, but there’s a much bigger picture now, one year later.

We know Amy Foster, the only council person who could have potentially derailed Kriseman’s victory party, knows that. During a press conference Friday morning, she said she’s comfortable with the new deal. Charlie Gerdes, Karl Nurse and Darden Rice have long been antsy to approve a deal. And Wheeler-Brown makes five. Done, done and done.

What needs to happen in St. Pete now is this – vote on the deal, approve the deal, move on and redevelop that wasteland of a parking lot that is currently hogging up land more valuable than St. Pete has seen in decades.

As Kriseman described this opportunity at Friday’s press conference, it’s “transformative.”

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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