ST. PETERSBURG — With the opening day of baseball season fast approaching, the St. Petersburg City Council voted Thursday to reopen the debate about the future of Tropicana Field and the Tampa Bay Rays.
The council voted to hold a workshop "as quickly as possible" on Mayor Rick Kriseman's latest proposal to let the team explore stadium options in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
The vote did not signal that council members will approve a regionwide search. A similar proposal failed in December by a 5-3 vote, and key council members continued to maintain that two deals Kriseman has negotiated with the Rays leave the city with the short end of the stick.
But council members unanimously voted to keep talking among themselves. Given Florida's Sunshine Laws, they can do that only in public meetings.
"Dialogue is the only way we can get to 'Yes,' '' said council member Amy Foster, who opposed Kriseman's December plan. "We cannot be the city that always says 'No' but there are concerns that we need to work through.''
It was unclear how any workshop discussion might alter the city's five-year standoff with the Rays over their contract to play in the Trop until 2027. Amid woeful attendance, the team wants to explore new stadium options on both sides of the bay. The city has so far threatened to sue if they do.
Kriseman negotiated a tentative compromise last year — allowing for a regional search and calling for the Rays to pay $2 million to $3 million a year if they left St. Petersburg before the Trop contract expires. Though the Rays called that their best offer, the council rejected it.
Kriseman then tweaked the proposal, to clarify a development-rights wrinkle that seemed to concern some on the council. But he shelved that revision Monday after discerning that he lacked the votes to pass it.
Council member Karl Nurse then floated the workshop idea. Several members expressed hope that the Rays would send a representative, but owner Stuart Sternberg said recently that he will no longer let his executives talk to the council as a body — only to individual members.
Neither Kriseman nor the Rays would comment Thursday, but Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby said either the mayor or a representative would attend the workshop.
Nurse wants the city to start planning redevelopment of Tropicana Field's 85 acres, with or without a new baseball stadium.
A huge, largely empty parking lot hampers development on the downtown's western edge, he said. And letting the Rays look for possible new stadium locations would also let the city jump-start redevelopment plans, Nurse said. The city could discuss what might go on the Trop acreage, send bids out to developers and look for possible tenants.
"We will be two years down the road and prepared when they play the last game at the that site, and be ready to build,'' Nurse said.
Council member Darden Rice concurred.
"I'm worried about 2027,'' she said. "If we don't move forward, I don't want to bring us to a year where we have an outdated stadium, no baseball team and empty, valuable land that will take several years for the city to develop.''
"We are stuck" with the current stalemate, Rice said. Kriseman's compromise proposal is "more of an opportunity for the city than for the Rays.''
Other council members reiterated their opposition.
Steve Kornell said the compensation Kriseman negotiated is too low, particularly in the face of estimates that the team brings Pinellas County $135 million a year in tourist spending.
"The arithmetic doesn't work,'' Kornell said. "My No. 1 responsibility is to look out for the taxpayers of St. Petersburg. My job is to get the best deal I can get.''
Bill Dudley bristled at the Rays saying that the December proposal was their final offer.
"That's no way to negotiate,'' Dudley said. "If we are truly going to negotiate, let's negotiate. But we need to come in with an open mind. We want them to stay here, but I am not willing to give away everything to keep them here.''
Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at [email protected]