ST. PETERSBURG — A crack has opened in St. Petersburg's long-standing refusal to let the Tampa Bay Rays explore possible stadium sites in Hillsborough County.
City Council member Charlie Gerdes placed a proposal on Thursday's council agenda that would give the team three years to investigate new stadium sites in either Hillsborough or Pinellas counties in exchange for an annual fee of about $1.42 million.
Mayor Bill Foster has refused to allow any stadium negotiations outside Pinellas County — citing the Rays' obligation to play at Tropicana Field through 2027 — but pressure has mounted in recent weeks as the Rays presented their case for a new stadium to county commissions on both sides of the bay.
Gerdes said Monday he has been thinking of suggesting an "exploration fee'' for several months. The recent county commission meetings "lit a fire under me,'' he said.
It's unclear how Gerdes' proposal will be received. Council Chairman Karl Nurse said he would support it. Two others said they would not. The other members either did not return calls seeking comment or declined to do so.
Hillsborough Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said he was "ecstatic.''
"Something must break this logjam we have,'' Hagan said, referring to the team's desire to look for sites all over the region and Foster's refusal to let them. "The Rays should compensate St. Pete for the right to consider other locations,'' Hagan said, "and I would encourage the Rays to seriously consider this.''
In a statement issued Monday night, Michael Kalt, senior vice president of development and business affairs for the Rays, said: "We are pleased that the council is taking up this issue, and we appreciate that Councilman Gerdes has brought it up for discussion. It is going to take a number of conversations to help move this along, and we look forward to greater collaboration with St. Petersburg."
The proposal comes in the form of an amendment to the Tropicana Field contract, which the City Council controls.
City attorneys have warned that allowing the Rays to examine stadium sites outside St. Petersburg could weaken the city's legal position if it ever sues to keep the team at the Trop.
Gerdes, a commercial and business litigation lawyer, said he included language that would protect the city's interests.
"I did it as well as it can be done," said Gerdes. "I wanted to make sure it doesn't weaken the city's position."
Among other things, the amendment would require the Rays to reconfirm current language that any breach of contract would cause "irreparable harm and damages that are not readily calculable in monetary terms.''
Gerdes said he sent a copy of the proposed amendment to the Rays last week and also discussed it with Foster, City Attorney John Wolfe and Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn.
"They were all very concerned,'' Gerdes said. The worry is that the city could forfeit its claim that losing the Rays causes "irreparable harm'' if the city itself invites the team to look elsewhere.
Foster declined to comment Monday, saying he would reserve his remarks for Thursday's meeting.
The amendment would require that the team first explore a recently proposed site at Carillon Business Park. The Rays have previously agreed to that provision as long as they also can make a regionwide search.
An annual "exploration fee'' charged to the Rays would be tied to the city's operating subsidy on the Trop for police and insurance. Last year's subsidy was $1.42 million. The amendment would require the Rays to pay at least that much, or more if the subsidy rises.
The Rays point to lousy attendance and contend that the Trop is badly located and cannot sustain a consistently competitive team. Since the team's downtown waterfront proposal fizzled in 2008, owner Stuart Sternberg has refused to examine any new sites in Pinellas — including CityScape's Carillon proposal — unless he can explore Hillsborough as well.
Tampa Bay will never be more than a mid-level market, Sternberg said last week, so any new stadium needs to be in the "pitch perfect" location.
Council member Wengay Newton said he thinks the amendment has little chance of passing.
"Once we break the contract, we won't have a leg to stand on" to protect the city's investment in the Trop "and my constituency, which has the economic impact of the stadium. We need to make sure we get the full benefit of that economic impact through 2027.''
Council member Steve Kornell also took a negative view of the proposed amendment, reiterating his position that the Rays should thoroughly examine Carillon, the downtown waterfront and other Pinellas sites without any preconditions.
"Our citizens have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the Trop and 15 years left on the lease, I don't think it's such a horrible thing to ask for you to start here,'' Kornell said. "If I am convinced by those discussions that they should look at other locations, then I would be willing for them to look elsewhere — but not before.''
Kornell said he would like more details about why a St. Petersburg location would not work. For example, the Rays said last week that St. Petersburg residents and companies hold only 300 full season ticket accounts, which translates to about 800 tickets a game.
"What they didn't say was how many corporations based in Tampa are buying tickets right now,'' Kornell said. "If this is a regional asset and they are not buying tickets, then they are putting us in danger of losing the team.''
Kornell did say he wants to invite the Rays to address the City Council directly at a meeting, "so I can ask some of these questions.''
In the past, Foster and Wolfe have discouraged such a public meeting, fearing that statements made by council members could be used against the city in a lawsuit. In fact, the council did not even discuss a detailed 2009 study by a citizens group called the ABC Coalition, set up by then Mayor Rick Baker, that evaluated potential stadium sites.
Maybe it is time to change that, Kornell said.
"Let's have a dialogue,'' he said. "It might be a starting point.''
Nurse, the council chairman, also liked the idea of inviting the Rays to address the council.
"One of our dilemmas is that the lawyers are always encouraging us to do nothing and say nothing,'' Nurse said. The Rays "are our partners and we need to talk to them. And we need to look down the road. Even if you started that conversation today, it would be five years before you walked into a new stadium.''
Council members Bill Dudley and Jeff Danner declined to comment. Council members Leslie Curran and James Kennedy could not be reached.
The city's strategy might make sense if the goal is keeping the team until 2027, Gerdes said, but not if the goal is keeping them through 2057 or longer.
"All we're doing is pushing them to leave in 2027," he said.