TAMPA — Conversations aimed at getting the Tampa Bay Rays to move to Tampa are heating up — at least judging by Hillsborough County's legal bills.
Lawyers for Foley & Lardner — the law firm that Hillsborough hired in its quest to lure the Rays across the bay — have amplified their site search for a new ballpark, increasingly speak with county officials and even talk directly to the Rays, according to invoices obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
The sharp uptick in activity is reflected in the bills that Foley & Lardner have sent the county that have totaled nearly $50,000 between June 20 and the most recent invoice on Sept. 12, a period of less than three months.
In the previous 16 months, the county paid the firm about $95,000.
"We're trying to be proactive," County Attorney Chip Fletcher said of the law firm's increasing workload. "We're trying to do all the due diligence in the event the Rays pick a stadium site in Hillsborough."
County commissioners will review a contract extension of up to three years with Foley & Lardner at their Wednesday meeting. The vote is scheduled for the consent agenda, a point in the meeting where commissioners typically approve dozens of agenda items unanimously and without any discussion.
Under the new agreement, the county attorney would have the power to extend the contract each year through 2019.
Foley & Lardner is on retainer for $4,500 a month, and the county pays an additional $395 an hour in attorney fees related to the Hillsborough stadium search and negotiations with the Rays. It also reimburses travel from the firm's New York office to meetings in Tampa with the county's Rays work group that includes Commissioner Ken Hagan, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and several local business executives.
Foley & Lardner, a Wisconsin-based firm with offices in New York and Tampa, has extensive ties to Major League Baseball. It previously represented the professional sports league, and a partner in the firm is a former MLB president and CEO. It has helped other teams and governments navigate stadium deals.
The firm has two lawyers, a land-use specialist and an expert in sports business, working on the county's pitch to woo the Rays.
After they were hired in November 2014, lawyers for the firm occasionally met with or talked with county officials. But they mostly collected their monthly fee without much other work billed to the county.
That changed this summer. The calls with the county became more frequent. Hagan, the board's point person for Rays discussions, was often on the other end of the line.
Invoices started to reference research into 10 potential stadium sites as lawyers looked at property titles and geographic data.
And in yet another sign of increased activity, Foley & Lardner and Rays brass kept in touch this summer.
The two sides exchanged communications in May. Foley & Lardner reviewed a "correspondence" from the Rays on Aug. 5 and a lawyer spoke with the team for several hours across Aug. 8 9 and 12, according to an invoice.
Asked about the nature of the conversations, Melanie Lenz, senior vice president of strategy and development for the Rays, said the team "continues to have positive and productive conversations with all parties involved in this process."
A phone call to an attorney with Foley & Lardner was not returned.
The most recent invoice from September for $17,629 shows lawyers spent 32 hours in August working on Hillsborough's stadium quest.
Across the bay, St. Petersburg has a Minnesota law firm on retainer that "we seek advice from on occasion," city spokesman Ben Kirby said, but there were no payments to it in 2016.
St. Petersburg and the team hired a consultant to prepare a master plan for the current site of Tropicana Field. The city paid $320,000 and the Rays put in $100,000.
A decision from the Rays on whether to relocate to Hillsborough County or stay in St. Petersburg could come as soon as this year or early next year.
After a meeting this summer between the Rays and Hillsborough officials and business leaders, Hagan speculated the county could soon narrow its list of potential ballpark sites to four.
"We feel like discussions are positive, but we have a long way to go before any decision gets made," Fletcher said. "And I can't tell you I have a good sense of what the Rays ultimately decide."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.