ST. PETERSBURG — It took nearly five hours of often heated debate Thursday for the City Council to end up where it had started: deadlocked on reaching a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.
More than six months after rejecting a deal that would have allowed the team to explore stadium sites in Hillsborough County and guaranteed millions of dollars in payments if the team decided to leave, another nonbinding vote showed a council still divided over how to proceed.
Four members said there was no immediate danger to holding the team to its current contract to play at Tropicana Field through 2027.
Only one member, Amy Foster, previously an opponent, switched her vote. She said that although she thought the Rays weren't paying the city enough if they should leave, she was excited about the possibility of developing the Trop site and moving forward.
Council members Steve Kornell, Jim Kennedy, Bill Dudley and Wengay Newton voted against the deal, as they had in December. It would have taken five members to advance the issue to a binding vote.
"We've got time," Kornell said. "Those acres aren't going away."
Even a proposal to pay for a study on how to redevelop the Tropicana Field site with or without the Rays died on the vine after council member Karl Nurse withdrew the motion, saying that it was meaningless if the deal's opponents wouldn't change their minds.
Chairman Charlie Gerdes said he feared the latest round of inaction meant that the team may end up leaving the city.
"This process has been going on for nine years. I am afraid they will conclude they can't work with the city of St. Petersburg," he said.
Mayor Rick Kriseman said the Rays considered the previous proposal dead and likely are not interested in a revived deal under the same terms.
"My indication is they're not," Kriseman said.
During the often intense debate, tempers sometimes flared.
Kennedy said he didn't think the Rays were being good community stewards. When challenged by Gerdes, Kennedy backed off slightly, saying they hadn't been terrible.
Dudley said that he believes the team has already hatched a secret deal, or at least an assurance, from another city with enough of a financial incentive to sign away development rights to the Trop.
"Why else would they do that?" he asked.
A deal brokered by Kriseman last year that would have allowed the Rays to explore stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties was amended earlier this year to clarify that the city retained all development rights if the team decides to leave. The Rays and Kriseman agreed to the stipulation, saying at the time that they wanted to reassure several members of council after the 5-3 vote in December defeated the earlier proposal.
Suspicions about the Rays' intentions frustrated Kriseman and council members who said the city could not afford to waste time.
The city's "iron-clad" contract with the team is beginning to rust, council member Darden Rice said.
By not inking a deal quickly, the city could lose millions in tax revenue in a hot real estate market on the 85-acre Trop site, Nurse said.
After the meeting, Kriseman said he had no idea what the future holds, but said he would keep working with the team on community issues. He said he was disappointed that the Rays had been attacked as poor corporate citizens. He again said opponents of a deal are endangering the team's future in Tampa Bay. And Thursday was a step backward, he said.
"What I heard from four of the council members was they seem to be okay if the team is gone in 2027. I'm not ready to concede that yet," he said.
The Rays have said previously they won't negotiate during the season. On Thursday, they issued a terse statement from team president Brian Auld.
"We appreciate the time and attention that Mayor Kriseman, Chairman Gerdes and the rest of the City Council have dedicated to this issue," it read.
Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.