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Rays' future in Tampa Bay could hinge on one St. Petersburg City Council race

ST. PETERSBURG — The fate of a deal that would allow the Tampa Bay Rays to search for a new home in Hillsborough County hinges on a single City Council race.

Five candidates are running for District 7, which since 2008 has been held by one of the deal's harshest critics — Wengay Newton, who voted against a Rays pact twice in the past eight months.

But with term limits forcing Newton from office in November, the District 7 election represents the best shot Mayor Rick Kriseman has in picking up the one vote he needs on the eight-member board to clinch an elusive deal with the team.

In interviews with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board this week, four candidates said they support a deal to allow the team to look across the bay.

Only Will Newton, the younger brother of Wengay Netwon, said the Rays aren't offering the city enough money.

"The offer we have now, we're just not there yet," Newton told the editorial board.

Although Kriseman said the deal rejected by the council in May is no longer on the table, the four other candidates signaled an overall readiness to put the yearslong saga behind them.

"I would vote yes to letting them look outside the city," said Lisa Wheeler-Brown, a former president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. "This could be a win-win for everybody. The decision needs to go ahead and be made."

The primary election on Aug. 25 will thin the field to the top two vote getters. The predominantly black district covers many of the southern neighborhoods of the city, including Midtown and Childs Park.

"We can't wait until this plays out," said Lewis Stephens, a behavioral specialist at Campbell Park Elementary School. "A decision has to be made now."

Stephens said if the city can't find a way to keep the team, he would vote to allow it to look in Hillsborough.

Sheila Scott Griffin and Aaron Sharpe both said they would vote for a deal. Yet both offered enough caveats to leave their potential votes somewhat unclear.

The team is bound to an agreement with the city through 2027. Kriseman and the Rays contend that the value of that agreement diminishes daily as the end of the agreement gets closer.

Some council members such as Jim Kennedy disagree, saying much can change in 12 years. Steve Kornell, another member who voted against the deal, said in May that the team needed to pay $55 million for the right to look elsewhere. Previous proposals had the Rays paying the city about $17 million.

Bill Dudley, another opponent of the deal, will step down in January because of term limits. But his replacement, Ed Montanari, who was elected without opposition, said he opposes a deal to let the team look in Hillsborough before they exhaust options in the city and Pinellas County.

Kriseman has support from four council members: Charlie Gerdes, Amy Foster, Karl Nurse and Darden Rice. Since May, the search has been on at City Hall for the final vote that's needed to tip the issue in Kriseman's favor.

Will Newton said he would not automatically reject a deal.

It's up to Kriseman to negotiate a better deal, Newton said, noting that after the December defeat, the Rays sweetened the deal, including clarifying language on development rights at Tropicana Field and giving up to three updates a year on their stadium search in St. Petersburg.

"I think the parties are very close, I feel pretty certain we're going to reach a deal," Newton said.

The Rays declined to comment.

Nurse has been a big proponent of breaching the impasse so that redevelopment can begin at the Trop. He said he was happy that the candidates, who had been reluctant to stake out positions on the issue, had decided to take a stand.

"They're all first-time candidates, many of them were hoping to find a way to not take a position, but this isn't kindergarten," Nurse said. "It doesn't get any easier if they get elected because then they have to vote on it."

Acknowledging the divisive nature of the Rays' desire to look in other areas around Tampa Bay, Nurse said he's sure they've heard plenty from both sides. And they don't want to alienate voters.

"Well, that's what they signed up for."

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

How they're leaning

Do you support Mayor Rick Kriseman's efforts to allow the Tampa Bay Rays to explore for a new home in Tampa Bay?

Sheila Scott Griffin: Maybe — "We're in a great place. It's not this one thing that we should somehow or another stop someone from looking."

Will Newton: No — Says the Rays aren't offering enough money. "We're just not there yet."

Aaron Sharpe: Maybe — "Yes, with the caveat that we will be working very hard to make us the best choice."

Lewis Stephens: Yes — "We can't wait until this plays out. A decision has to be made now."

Lisa Wheeler-Brown: Yes — "I would vote yes to letting them look outside the city. This could be a win-win for everybody. The decision needs to go ahead and be made."

Rays' future in Tampa Bay could hinge on one St. Petersburg City Council race 07/17/15 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2015 10:25pm]
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