St. Petersburg City Council rejects Rays stadium search deal

An issue of development rights sours the stadium search deal.
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ST. PETERSBURG — The stadium standoff continues. Baseball's uncertain future in Tampa Bay has grown more complicated and — if possible — more testy.

The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday rejected an agreement negotiated by Mayor Rick Kriseman that would have given the Tampa Bay Rays three years to explore stadium sites in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Council members got their backs up when Rays president Brian Auld refused to yield an iota on development rights on Tropicana Field and other issues.

Council member Darden Rice, who voted for the agreement, said the Rays blew the deal with their presentation.

"I think at one point we had five votes,'' Rice said. "But I was very disappointed by Auld's response to Karl Nurse's question about development rights. It was either tone deafness or arrogance.''

The vote was a stunning setback for Kriseman, who had lobbied council members heavily, trying to convince them that the deal would keep the team in the Tampa Bay area for decades to come, if not St. Petersburg.

"St. Petersburg — and the entire Tampa Bay region — stands to lose our Major League Baseball team and receive nothing in return," he said afterward in a prepared statement. "This is an unfortunate outcome for St. Petersburg's taxpayers and every fan of the Rays.''

He grew more agitated in a news conference. He mocked a council vote to schedule a workshop on stadium options.

"You've got eight council members who have to make a decision as to whether they want to lead or lead by workshop,'' Kriseman said. "And unfortunately, the majority chose to lead by workshop.''

What happens next is anything but clear.

Auld refused to answer questions after the meeting, instead issuing a terse statement.

"We are obviously disappointed,'' Auld said. "Our goal was to begin a collaborative, exploratory process in our region to determine the best location for a next-generation ballpark. The council has instead decided that the status quo is what is in the best interest of the citizens of St. Petersburg."

During the discussion, council members said they hoped the Rays would engage in a stadium search limited to St. Petersburg.

But the Rays have said for six years that they need to look throughout the region to find the best stadium spot. And owner Stuart Sternberg said last week he would not negotiate another deal and baseball in Tampa Bay would be "doomed" if the council rejected this one.

If the Rays are simply bound to the Trop, he said, he would eventually sell the team to another owner, who could then move the Rays out of the region after the Trop contract expires in 2027.

Council members Charlie Gerdes, Rice and Nurse voted for the agreement. Council members Jim Kennedy, Wengay Newton, Amy Foster, Steve Kornell and Bill Dudley voted against.

Although Nurse ultimately supported the agreement, it was his questioning about development rights that turned the tide on what was otherwise a close vote, several council members said.

Nurse wants to start leasing and developing property on the eastern part of the Trop's 85 acres.

Under the current Trop "use agreement" both the city and Rays would have to agree to any development and would split profits from land sales or leases.

Nurse wondered what would happen if development occurred after the Rays started a stadium search but before opening day in a new stadium. Why should the Rays split profits from land they plan to leave?

Nurse had asked Kriseman earlier in the week to change the agreement so the city could retain all development rights in that situation. But the Rays declined to make any substantive changes to Kriseman's deal.

Auld reiterated that at the meeting.

"We have a use agreement," Auld said. "And for as long as we're in the Trop, we expect to abide by the terms of that use agreement and we expect the city to abide by that as well.''

Before the discussion about development rights, Auld had praised St. Petersburg and talked of the Rays being bullish on the region.

"We could be searching anywhere in 2028, but we are not interested in exploring free agency," Auld said. "This gives us an opportunity to extend our agreement with Tampa Bay.''

But any good intentions wilted with the development rights discussion.

Dudley said he felt like the Rays were making ultimatums. "I don't like arrogance,'' he said.

"The deal breaker for me was the idea that they want us to abide by the use agreement for redevelopment purposes, where they can benefit,'' Foster said, "but they didn't want to abide by the use agreement'' by staying at the Trop.

"This is a common strategy," she said. "They use their mobility in order to threaten cities in order to get more.''

Newton said the Rays should simply honor their contract to play at the Trop through 2027. He noted that hundreds of homes and businesses in St. Petersburg's African-American community were razed to create the site.

"A lot of people sacrificed and gave their lives,'' Newton said. "They brought a bulldozer through there with nothing but a promise. The best we got was to sell popcorn in the Trop — maybe.''

The Rays have angled for a new stadium since their proposed downtown waterfront project fell apart six years ago. Attendance and corporate support at the Trop trails that of other major league teams. Tampa Bay's monopolistic cable TV market dampens the team's media revenue.

Neither Sternberg nor any subsequent owner will ever go broke. Baseball's national revenue streams prop up the team's bottom line. And its value as an asset keeps rising.

The problem is what happens as 2027 approaches with no new stadium in sight, Gerdes said. Other cities outside the area can then start wooing the team.

Both Gerdes and Rice said the best way to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg was to grant their wish for a region-wide search. St. Petersburg would fare well in a head-to-head competition with Tampa, they said.

"The only way we get to keep them is to let them go look,'' Gerdes said. "If they don't start looking, they won't make that choice and we won't have baseball here past 2027.''

Staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Contact Stephen Nohlgren at [email protected]

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