Deadline clock ticking on Rays agreement with St. Pete: What happens next?

An artists rendering shows how a stadium might fit inside the area of Ybor City favored by the Tampa Bay Rays. [Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan]
An artists rendering shows how a stadium might fit inside the area of Ybor City favored by the Tampa Bay Rays. [Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan]
Published June 8 2018
Updated June 8 2018

TAMPA — There is no clock in baseball, but time is ticking away on the quest by the Tampa Bay Rays to move the team’s stadium across the bay.

The alarm sounds in about seven months, New Year’s Day, the end of a three-year deal that opened the door for long-sought talks with Hillsborough. Extending the deal, even if that’s allowed, could cost the team more money.

No one who is willing to talk sees any hope for hitting the deadline.

"While we are working diligently with the team and the private sector regarding the Rays new ballpark, it is unlikely that an agreement will be reached and approved by necessary legislative bodies by the end of the year," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who is spearheading the push to bring the team to Tampa.

What happens afterward is anybody’s guess.

"I have no idea. So many things are up in the air, I can’t even speculate," said Tampa City Council member and mayoral candidate Mike Suarez, who like others on the council said he wasn’t aware of a Dec. 31 deadline or its implications.

Read more from our columnist: Instead of fussing, St. Pete should help the Rays pack

The Rays have a contract with the city of St. Petersburg requiring them to play at Tropicana Field through 2027, but the team wants out of the deal in the belief that a new location would boost its dismal attendance. The Rays persuaded city leaders in January 2016 to let them spend three years looking at alternative sites — including some outside the city.

Hagan said he didn’t believe the financial details of a new stadium had to be nailed down by the expiration date — just a notice provided to St. Petersburg that the team plans a move to Ybor City.

"Based on my discussion with the team, it’s my understanding that it’s not necessary to have an approved formal agreement by the end of the year," Hagan said.

The Rays declined to comment on what Dec. 31 means to them.

This much is clear: The exploration agreement doesn’t have any language specifically authorizing an extension. The move would require new negotiations between the Rays and approval by Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council, said St. Petersburg City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch.

If it comes to that, the city might want to revise the compensation it demanded from the Rays should it be asked to release the team from its contract to play at Tropicana Field, said St. Petersburg City Council member Charlie Gerdes.

Under the current agreement, the Rays would pay $2 million a year between 2023 and 2026 if the team is playing in an Ybor City ballpark by then.

"We would be entitled to consider that," Gerdes said, "in the context of, ‘Do we want something also? Do we want to raise the amount of money? Do we want something else?’"

He suggested this cocktail-napkin scenario:

"We would favorably consider an extension if you would agree to $2.5 million a year instead of $2 million a year," said Gerdes, an attorney who works on contracts. "It’s my opinion that’s the way any contract modification would be addressed."

In January 2016, fans and advocates of a Hillsborough ballpark rejoiced when Kriseman championed an effort to allow the Rays a three-year window to look for new stadium sites in Hillsborough County.

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In February, the Rays announced their choice of Ybor City, prompting another round of celebration among those eager to see the bay area retain its professional baseball team.

But on Dec. 31, when the memorandum of understanding between the Rays and St. Petersburg expires, the team must choose one of three options:

• Terminate its relationship with St. Petersburg, starting the clock on paying the compensation agreed to and allowing the city to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site.

• Ask the city to enter into new negotiations on a stadium within the city of St. Petersburg.

• Revert back to the pre-agreement lease that keeps the team playing at the Trop through 2027.

There is leeway within those options, said St. Petersburg Council member Amy Foster, who cast the deciding vote to let the Rays look across the bay.

Foster recalled a recent meeting with Rays officials: "I asked what happens if the money package doesn’t work and the answer was vague, like all options were on the table."

Whatever he may be thinking about an extension of the agreement, Kriseman isn’t letting on.

"With the deadline still seven months away, Mayor Kriseman will contemplate such a request if and when it is made," spokesman Ben Kirby said in an email Wednesday.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn isn’t getting involved.

"That’s between the Rays and St. Pete," Buckhorn said.

A leader in the effort to drum up corporate support for an Ybor City stadium, attorney Ron Christaldi, said he’s confident an extension could be worked out.

"I would hope that they would see that the discussions have happened in earnest and be flexible in the date," Christaldi said. "You don’t want to artificially stop something that is progressing."

He said Kriseman should be commended for his courage and commitment to the interests of the entire region in letting the team look around. With that approach, he said, extending Rays discussions with Hillsborough is more a blip than a meltdown.

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"If the effort were to implode, if the discussions were to cease, it would be a major setback for the entire region," Christaldi said. "Honestly, I think the likelihood of it is small because elected officials on both sides are thinking regionally."

Meantime, the clock continues to tick.

The city of Tampa faces a budget deficit that will likely consume its financial discussions for most of the summer and early fall. Council members have no stadium financial package to consider yet, anyway.

That leaves little time before Dec. 31 for the kind of protracted negotiations and failed initiatives that marked Kriseman’s attempt to get a deal done during 2014 and 2015.

"Let’s put it this way: It’s going to have to be fully baked, it’s got to be ready for an up and down vote," said Tampa City Council member Luis Viera.

Said Tampa Council member Harry Cohen, another candidate for mayor: "It would appear to me unlikely that we’re going to be considering a fleshed-out proposal this fall."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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