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STADIUM DIVIDES MAYORAL HOPEFULS

Candidate Bill Foster foresees a new stadium. Kathleen Ford says current lease holds Rays.

If the Rays don't get a new baseball stadium, how easily could they leave town?

That question - critical to any negotiations between St. Petersburg and the team - has taken center stage in the city's mayoral race.

Kathleen Ford says the Rays are committed by contract to play at Tropicana Field through 2027. She refuses to even speculate on alternatives.

"I'm more concerned about the local economy and having more officers on the street and decreasing taxes,'' Ford says.

Bill Foster can foresee concrete rising from the ground as early as 2016, when the current bonds expire on Tropicana Field.

Yes, the city could try to enforce the Trop agreement until 2027, Foster says, but teams break contracts all the time and no telling how messy a lawsuit could be.

"In the meantime,'' he says, "we would be spending a lot of time and money litigating against one of our partners.''

Any new stadium would take years of planning and negotiations before voters could approve or reject it in a referendum.

How Ford or Foster navigates that process could determine whether the city ends up with a ribbon cutting or a court battle.

Legal experts say the Trop lease is not as ironclad as Ford suggests, because a judge could refuse to enforce key provisions.

On the other hand, other factors make it difficult for the Rays to leave town any time soon.

That dichotomy leaves the next mayor with a balancing act:

Jettison the Trop too quickly and you sacrifice leverage that translates into tax dollars.

Push too closely to 2027 and good-bye baseball.

'Use agreement'

Most leases call for rent payments over a specified term. If tenants leave early, courts usually award the landlord whatever money is owed for the full term.

City officials are quick to stress that the Trop contract is a not a lease and little rent is paid.

The contract is a "use agreement,'' they say. The Rays got a stadium in 1996 under original owner Vince Naimoli. In return, he and any successors pledged to play there for 30 years.

Benefits to the city cannot be measured in dollars alone, the contract says. Baseball brings jobs, taxes, promotion, a higher quality of life and civic pride.

Both sides agreed that the city could enforce its interests by seeking an injunction to keep the Rays from leaving early. The contract forbids the Rays from even talking to another city about moving.

Forcing sports teams to stay in town has some legal precedent.

In 2002, a state judge blocked Major League Baseball's attempt to "contract'' or eliminate the Minnesota Twins. And in 2008, a federal judge forbade the Seattle Sonics basketball team from moving to Oklahoma City before the lease expired.

Point Kathleen Ford.

Those injunctions, however, were last-ditch stalling actions. Only one year remained on the Twins' lease. After the injunction, the Legislature and county government scrambled to build a new stadium to keep the team.

In Seattle, two years remained on the lease. After his court loss, the Sonics' owner said he would still move as soon as the lease expired. Seattle took a $45 million buyout rather than being left with nothing in two years.

In St. Petersburg, the Rays have not threatened to move. They just say they don't plan to stay at the Trop anywhere close to 2027. They can't play competitive baseball with the revenues the Trop produces, they say.

Should they announce plans to leave, it might be difficult to block them via injunction, says Stetson Law College professor James Fox, a contract specialist.

The contract is strong, Fox says, but judges are reluctant to embroil themselves in a private business for years and years.

"There is a strong preference to have the parties pay damages to resolve contract breaches.''

Keeping teams like the Sonics or Twins in place for a year or two is one thing, he says, "but when you are looking at a 17- or 18-year enforcement period, the court could say, 'Even if money damages are not wholly adequate, a long enforcement period makes it an inappropriate type of remedy.'''

Then-city attorney Michael Davis warned St. Petersburg council members that injunctive relief was not a guarantee when they approved the 1995 contract. "It is largely within the discretion of the court," Davis said at the time. "There is no certainty that you will obtain it.''

Point Bill Foster.

City's trump card

Even without an injunction, St. Petersburg still has leverage should the stadium issue turn into a court fight.

New stadiums generate tons of money, with higher attendance, higher ticket prices, more advertising and spiffy luxury boxes.

The 20-year-old Trop is expensive to run. Its cavernous spaces must be air conditioned around the clock to stave off mildew and the roof is out of warranty.

If the Rays try to bolster a legal case by claiming they lose money at the Trop, they would have to open their books to prove it, Fox and other lawyers say.

That would expose some of Major League Baseball's inner workings, like revenue sharing. Baseball moguls have historically blanched at such exposure.

Absent an injunction, the city's remedy would then come down to monetary damages, which could be substantial.

For starters, the contract specifies that any Trop bonds would have to be paid off. That bill stands at $80 million, declining about $12 million a year. The Rays also could have to pay harder-to-calculate damages like job loss.

And their own handiwork could work against them.

When the team proposed a new stadium on St. Petersburg's waterfront, it commissioned a study that pegged baseball's economic impact at $137 million to $213 million a year.

"It puts the team in an interesting position,'' says Fox. "When they are trying to come into a location and build a new stadium, they try to show the public what a benefit it is going to be. But in litigation, they will bring in experts to attack those numbers as unreliable or unrealistic.''

Point Ford.

Possible buyout?

The Rays have declined to comment on stadium issues until a local group called the ABC Coalition finishes reviewing new stadium possibilities.

But St. Petersburg lawyer Michael Keane notes potential pitfalls if the city hangs its hat on the current lease for too long.

Keane represented Vince Naimoli when he sued the National League in the 1990s for blocking the San Francisco Giants' move to St. Petersburg.

If the city sues to keep the Rays in town, principal owner Stuart Sternberg or any successive owner could simply slash the payroll, allowing other teams to snap up popular players.

"No court can order what type player you put on the ball field,'' Keane said.

If 2018 or 2019 rolls around with no hint of a stadium, look for a buyout, Keane suggested.

The Rays could say they would leave for sure in 2027, he said, then offer the city a $100 million peace offering.

"The practical effect of an injunction becomes less and less the older (the Trop lease) becomes," he said.

Since a new stadium's planning, land purchase and design could take six to eight years, he says, initial movement needs to start sooner rather than later if the city wants to keep the Rays.

Ford's insistence on standing by the contract, "might be okay for a while,'' Keane says. "But not for long.''

Point Foster.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

When to build? Building a new baseball stadium before a lease expires on a previous stadium is unusual, but not unheard of. Here are major league stadiums built or planned in the last decade, along with the years left on their old lease when the new stadium opened its doors.

City Ballpark Year opened Cost Publicly financed portion Years left on old lease
Seattle Safeco Field 1999 $517 million 72 percent expired
San Francisco AT&T Park 2000 $255 million 0 percent expired
Detroit Commerica Park 2000 $300 million 63 percent 8
Houston Minute Maid Park 2000 $250 million 68 percent expired
Milwaukee Miller Park 2001 $382 million 66 percent expired
Pittsburgh PNC Park 2001 $216 million 70 percent expired
Cincinnati Great American Ballpark 2003 $320 million 82 percent 7
Philadelphia Citizens Bank Park 2004 $548 million 50 percent 7
San Diego PETCO Park 2004 $449 million 57 percent expired
St. Louis Busch Stadium III 2006 $344 million 12 percent no lease
Washington Nationals Park 2008 $611 million 100 percent expired
New York (Mets) Citi Field 2009 $632 million 35 percent expired
New York (Yankees) Yankee Stadium 2009 $1.6 billion 0 percent* expired
Minneapolis (Twins) Target Field 2010 $545 million 67 percent expired
Miami (Marlins) Miami Ballpark 2012 $515 million 70 percent expired
* City of New York will pay $220 million for infrastructure near Yankee Stadium Sources: www.ballparksofbaseball.com, Minnesota Ballpark Authority, Miami Herald

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