ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman on Tuesday announced a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays to let the team explore new stadium sites in Hillsborough County to keep them in the region and even — Kriseman hopes — in St. Petersburg.
The deal next goes to the City Council for a vote on Thursday. But within moments of Kriseman's news conference Tuesday, complications emerged.
Council members began raising questions and asking for more time. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said he'd sell the team if the deal does not go through.
"The chances of me owning this team in 2023 if we don't have a new stadium are probably nil," Sternberg said. "Somebody else will take it and move it."
The "memorandum of understanding'' negotiated by Kriseman and the Rays would give the team three years to analyze possible sites in Hillsborough and Pinellas.
Kriseman said he did not know if he has enough votes to pass the agreement. But given how long it takes to build a stadium, waiting much longer to get going increases chances the team will leave the region.
Kriseman said he would make an aggressive pitch for either a new stadium on the Tropicana Field acreage or renovation of the Trop itself.
"The best place for them to play is right here in St. Pete and, potentially, right here on this site," Kriseman said. "All you have to do is look at what's happening in the city right now, especially in this area. This city is taking off."
Rays representatives will attend Thursday's council meeting. What they won't do, Sternberg said, is return to the negotiating table and raise their offer. They have bandied around terms with two different mayors for nearly two years.
"There's nothing for me to do at that point,'' Sternberg said. "Re-re-re-renegotiate? This is it, I don't see us changing this much more than a minor way, if at all."
The Rays have wanted to look for a new stadium site for years, saying the Trop and its location cannot support a successful team. Until this week, St. Petersburg officials have refused to let them look outside city limits.
Under Kriseman's agreement, the Rays would pay the city between $2 million and $4 million for each season, or part of a season, that is not played at the Trop. The Rays would also provide the city with season tickets, signs in the new stadium and other in-kind compensation roughly equivalent to $1 million.
Up to $9 million in remaining bonds on the Trop, now paid by the state, would most likely be rolled into a new stadium financing package, Kriseman said.
The city would pay for demolishing the Trop, estimated by city officials at $4.8 million.
If the Rays do find a new stadium site, the city and team will need a second agreement to terminate the current Trop contract. This week's memorandum would prevent the council from altering compensation or injecting any new requirements in that second agreement.
Without that protection, the Rays could work for three years on new stadium sites only to have the council squelch the deal, said Rays president Brian Auld.
"That just wasn't palatable to us," he said.
Not being able to make changes down the road is exactly what bothers council member Karl Nurse.
"We're basically out of the game after Thursday if we approve it," Nurse said. "I don't want to become irrelevant after Thursday in this conversation."
Council member Jim Kennedy said he wants to delay the vote, giving the council more time to absorb details. Plus, meetings on the second Thursday of the month usually don't permit public comment, and Kennedy wanted the public to have a say on the stadium.
But later Tuesday, City Attorney John Wolfe confirmed that the public could speak on the stadium issue Thursday.
Council member Amy Foster said she's not sure Kriseman negotiated enough compensation. Member Wengay Newton said the Rays should honor the Trop contract. "Do I tell my wife of 24 years I love you but I want to go and look and see what else is out there?" Newton said.
Chairman Bill Dudley said he doesn't want to be rushed and needs more information.
Council members Steve Kornell, Charlie Gerdes and Darden Rice have all voiced some support for the pact.
Kornell noted that the longer the city prohibits the Rays from looking outside St. Petersburg, the less leverage the city has. That's because as time wears on without a new stadium, leaving the region becomes more likely for the Rays.
"Moving forward is better than remaining stagnant," Kornell said.
If the council approves the deal, the Rays will take four to six weeks to develop guidelines for a new stadium project. They expect landowners in both Pinellas and Hillsborough to pitch prospective sites of at least 10 acres, vice president of development Melanie Lenz said.
The Rays have not ruled out any sites, including Tropicana Field, Lenz said.
In a Tampa news conference, Mayor Bob Buckhorn praised Krisemen for protecting St. Petersburg's interests as well as "the desire of the bay area to keep the Rays somewhere in the bay area.
"The business model for the Rays is not working," he added.
In a letter Tuesday, former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster urged the council to reject the deal on several points. In his negotiations with the Rays, Foster never completed a deal.
The Rays should pay for demolition of the Trop, and installing infrastructure to prepare the acreage for development, Foster said. He estimated the cost to be at least $10 million.
Pinellas County commissioners praised the agreement as a way to let the Rays properly vet sites on both sides of the bay. Commissioner Ken Welch said Pinellas County should be more than competitive with Hillsborough for sites and could use county bed tax money to help finance a stadium.
"One thing at a time," said commission Chairwoman Karen Seel. "Let's be patient to find out what the Rays decide as far as locations and we'll take it from there. The ball's in their court."
Times staff writers Marc Topkin, Richard Danielson and Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at [email protected]