Why can't the Rays leave Tropicana Field before 2027?
The team's agreement with St. Petersburg states that club officials can't "enter into, initiate or conduct any agreement or negotiations (directly or indirectly) for the use of any facility other than the dome" before the contract expires. If the Rays choose to break that agreement, the city could sue and force the club to pay damages "that are not readily calculable."
If the Rays did leave early, what could the club be forced to pay the city?
It depends on when they leave. If the Rays left now, the team could owe the city $50 million in primary bond debt for the construction of the Trop. If the Rays waited and didn't leave until 2017, then that debt drops to $0. In 2017, the team could still owe about $13 million in secondary bond debt. The Rays also could be forced to compensate the city for the value of a major league baseball team, although how the courts would determine that abstract value is unclear. The city could argue that baseball is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
That still sounds like a lot. What would the Rays say?
A judge most certainly would penalize the Rays for leaving before 2027, but the club could argue for lesser damages because the city might recover losses by selling the Trop site to developers. Just two years ago, developers bid $60 million to buy it. By putting developed Trop acreage back on tax rolls, St. Petersburg could gain something like $7 million a year. If bonded out, that supports $90 million to $100 million in new spending.
If the Rays stay in Pinellas, where might a new stadium get built?
The Rays say staying in Tropicana is not a possibility. Club officials have ruled out downtown, even though they pushed hard two years ago for a waterfront stadium. They say downtown is too far from a population base that can support baseball. The Gateway area, which is technically in St. Petersburg and also closer to Tampa, is still considered a possibility. Club officials want the right to scout for other sites and say they won't consider other St. Petersburg sites if they aren't allowed to look elsewhere, including Tampa and Hillsborough.
How might a new stadium in Pinellas County get financed?
In a tough economy, there's not much money around for big public projects. But one possibility is rail. A sales tax initiative that could be voted on in 2011 or 2012 could help finance a stadium that, like Target Field in Minneapolis, doubles as a rail station. Combining infrastructure needs with a sports stadium worked in Hillsborough in 1997 when voters approved a half-cent sales tax that paid for Raymond James Stadium, roads and school construction. Federal grants might be eligible for rail that might subsidize some of the infrastructure costs. With high speed rail connecting Tampa and Orlando possibly complete by 2015, such grants for rail systems that could link to that system could be readily available. Pinellas officials also have indicated there could be support for rededicating tax money currently used to pay for the Trop after that debt is paid off.