Sunday, January 21, 2018
News Roundup

Third time the charm? St. Pete City Council considers another deal with Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — Call it a streak of bad luck, bad faith or bad politics.

But for nearly a decade, it's been no dice for a compromise with the tenant of the city-owned Tropicana Field — the Tampa Bay Rays — that would let the club out of its lease agreement in exchange for millions in exploration and exit fees.

St. Petersburg council members today take their third shot in 10 months at hashing out a deal that has eluded the last three mayors.

As always, it's complicated.

The council will consider not one, but two plans. The proposals, by council Chairman Charlie Gerdes and council member Jim Kennedy, would cost the team significantly more money than the two previous deals the council rejected.

And it doesn't help that the man who will negotiate a deal with the Rays, Mayor Rick Kriseman, is hardly championing either plan.

Kriseman was to return from an economic development conference in Toronto late Wednesday night. He'll attend the meeting, but whatever happens, he won't be reduced to playing messenger, said chief of staff Kevin King.

"He doesn't have to do anything," King said. "He has to be on board, too."

Yet while competing proposals could further splinter an already divided council, some consider them progress, especially given that Kennedy has consistently voted against a deal.

"It's a little awkward," said council member Amy Foster. "But it shows the realization of the importance of getting to 'yes'. "

So what has changed in 147 days, which is how long ago the council rejected a deal that would let the Rays search for stadium sites elsewhere in Tampa Bay?

In September, plans to build a Pinellas County spring training facility for the Atlanta Braves were unveiled. County commissioners took that opportunity to say that their patience was wearing thin in the standoff between the City Council and the Rays. The Braves are asking for up to $10.5 million a year in tourist tax dollars, the same (limited) revenue the Rays would need to build a new stadium in Pinellas.

Gerdes and Kennedy said the threat of a Braves facility triggered their proposals. Gerdes has said he sees his proposal as a way to start a conversation, not gain leverage. He said he likes elements on Kennedy's plan, too.

Kennedy wasn't giving much away when asked Wednesday if he would vote for Gerdes' plan or a compromise version. "I'd like to hear the comments and viewpoints of my colleagues before making that decision," he said.

Gerdes' plan would cost the team about $22 million if they left Tropicana Field by 2020. Kennedy's version would cost about $33 million.

Foster, who voted against the Kriseman plan in December before switching sides in May, said she would love to get the most money for the city, but also understands the Rays' "reality," which is that the best financial terms (about $16 million) have already been offered.

Kriseman has said repeatedly the Rays won't sweeten the deal.

If nothing else, Foster said, the plans from Gerdes and Kennedy might represent what's possible from the City Council's perspective.

Council member Darden Rice, a supporter of an agreement, was in Cuba for most of the week. But three members who have voted against previous deals — Steve Kornell, Wengay Newton and Bill Dudley — don't show signs of reversing course.

Kornell didn't return a phone call for comment. Newton said he hadn't read either plan yet.

Gerdes and Kennedy should be applauded for providing their colleagues with some options, Dudley said. But he said neither plan probably requires enough money from the Rays to get his vote.

The Rays declined to comment, but council member Karl Nurse thinks a "yes" vote puts pressure on the team to find common ground with the city.

The meeting begins at 2 p.m. in the City Council chambers at City Hall. Television coverage is available on St. Pete TV and on the city's website.

If past Rays discussions are any indication, prepare for some drama. Kriseman's plan appeared destined for approval in December before a question about Tropicana Field development rights derailed it. In May, Foster switched her vote, but tweaks to the original memorandum of understanding designed to lure Kennedy to "yes" failed.

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