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Mayor says Tampa Bay Rays want too much to build stadium at Tropicana site

Rick Kriseman says the team wants a larger cut of revenues while playing half the season in Montreal. The Rays say the mayor mischaracterized their position.
Aerial photo taken of Tropicana Field on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019 in St. Petersburg.
Aerial photo taken of Tropicana Field on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2019) ]
Published Jan. 26
Updated Jan. 26

ST. PETERSBURG — For the first time in years, the Tampa Bay Rays have had serious talks with the city about potentially building a new stadium on the Tropicana Field site.

But those discussions are already in jeopardy over who would control the property’s redevelopment, and the resulting revenues, as well as the team’s insistence on the split-season plan with Montreal.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has been involved in private discussions with Rays ownership going back to last summer, but says they are now at an impasse because the team is asking for too much.

“I want the Rays to remain in St. Petersburg and I’m willing to work with them to make it happen,” Kriseman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But I’m not giving the city away.”

St. Petersburg Mayor, Rick Kriseman addresses the media during a news conference announcing the Tropicana Field site development Requests For Proposals have been submitted to the city Tuesday.
St. Petersburg Mayor, Rick Kriseman addresses the media during a news conference announcing the Tropicana Field site development Requests For Proposals have been submitted to the city Tuesday. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

The mayor held a press conference outside the stadium Tuesday morning to discuss proposals from developers. Rays owner Stu Sternberg, along with team presidents Matt Silverman and Brian Auld, attended the briefing and said the mayor’s characterization of their “demands” was inaccurate.

“This doesn’t get done unless the county, the city — which means the mayor, the council, businesspeople — get together and pull together,” Sternberg told the Times. “That’s the idea, that we want to be on the same side of the table, as opposed to negotiating, ‘What do we get, what do you get.’

“There’s no way this stadium gets built without funds coming out of our pocket. And if it’s too much funding, it doesn’t get built. So how do we get to a point where you’re comfortable and I’m comfortable and what’s good for the city and everybody involved to get a stadium done?”

Related: Rays plan to open season with fans at Tropicana Field

The Rays have not committed to how much they would contribute to the construction of a stadium, saying it would depend on details such as the location.

And while the stadium saga has been ongoing since 2007, there is some urgency involved. Kriseman’s final term as mayor ends in 12 months and he would like to have a redevelopment plan for the Tropicana Field land secured before he leaves office.

The site’s current use agreement entitles the Rays to 50 percent of the revenue of any development on that land before 2028, whether a stadium is involved or not.

Kriseman said the team asked for a larger cut of that revenue and more control of the development.

The Rays are seeking control of 50 acres east of Booker Creek, and want 100 percent of the development rights for that portion of the parcel, according to Kriseman. The team would still be entitled to 50 percent of the development rights on the rest of the property.

Those 50 acres would include 14 acres of required park land plus 10 or 11 acres for the stadium. That would leave about 25 acres for the Rays to develop any way they wanted, while presumably using the revenue to help fund the cost of the stadium. The team would still seek funding from Pinellas County and other public funding sources to pay for stadium construction.

“Right now, they’re entitled to 50 percent of the proceeds and that’s with a full-time team in the city,” Kriseman said. “And they’re proposing to take 100 percent of the proceeds for a large part of that land, and 50 percent for the rest of it. And that’s for a part-time team.

“I can’t give them that. I just can’t.”

Sternberg said the “proposal was just that: A proposal. We thought it would be a beginning point to get things moving along. We’ll leave it to private discussions and we look forward to being here for generations to come.”

The Tropicana Field land is considered a community-defining parcel with 86 acres available for development in the shadow of St. Pete’s growing downtown. The city recently received proposals from seven developers — with and without a new stadium on the land.

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg, right, Rays President Matt Silverman, left, and President Brian Auld listen to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman address the media during a news conference Tuesday.
Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg, right, Rays President Matt Silverman, left, and President Brian Auld listen to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman address the media during a news conference Tuesday. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

While Kriseman has long insisted that the Rays would eventually return to the Tropicana Field site as the most logical place for a new stadium, team executives have previously expressed little interest in remaining there. Their focus was originally on St. Pete’s waterfront and later in Ybor City.

That stance appears to have changed since Hillsborough County failed to come up with a stadium financing plan in 2018. With the proposal to split the season with Montreal, the Tropicana site could be seen as a more viable location with only 38 to 40 regular-season games instead of the current 81.

Related: St. Petersburg mayor and City Council spar over Tropicana Field project

Without going into details about conversations, the Rays say their proposal was not a demand.

“The proposal (Kriseman) referenced was a starting point. It was meant to initiate a discussion, not a take-it-or-leave-it. Not a we-have-to-have-complete-control of the land,” Auld said. “We said, ‘This is our vision, we want to work together to make sure we both agree this is a good plan for the future.’ And we need the county, the (city) council, the community, the African American community, we need all of them at the table, too. But here’s a way we might be able to afford a ballpark and get this thing going.”

Kriseman said the team’s request to control the type of development on half of the land was also a major stumbling block. When the original stadium was approved in the mid-1980s, it was supposed to serve as a catalyst for low-income communities nearby. The financial windfall was never fully realized even though dozens of Black families had been forced to relocate to make way for the stadium.

The new project would be a way to readdress those wrongs, and city leaders have promised to listen to the community’s desires. By turning over half of the available property to the Rays, Kriseman said the city would forfeit its ability to control how much low-income housing is used in the parcel.

Agreeing to this plan would also mean asking developers to resubmit their proposals for the site since the city would only control 36 acres of the parcel.

“It undermines the entire process of what we’ve been trying to do out there,” Kriseman said.

If the city moves ahead with redevelopment without a stadium, it risks having the Rays leave the market in seven years and take a cut of the property’s windfall on their way out of town. It’s doubtful City Council members would be enthusiastic about that prospect, and they would have to sign off on any contracts with developers.

“My job as a council member is to look out for the best interests of the city and taxpayers,” said council member and mayoral candidate Darden Rice. “We all need to treat partners like the Rays with respect. We can and should do both, and land on a solution that’s best for the future of our city.”

In the summer of 2019, Sternberg unveiled an innovative plan for the team to play slightly less than half of its regular-season games in Tampa Bay while playing the rest in Montreal. His basic point was that neither market had shown the ability to financially support a Major League team full time, but could thrive under this sister city concept.

The Rays have previously proposed two full-season stadium projects in Tampa Bay, but neither idea ever got beyond an architect’s renderings.

The first was an open-air stadium at the current site of Al Lang Field that Sternberg announced in 2007. That proposal, much like the one currently under discussion, would have been funded with revenues from the sale of the Tropicana Field land. The then-$450 million stadium would have required voter approval since it involved building on St. Petersburg’s waterfront, and the Rays abandoned the idea seven months later when the referendum met resistance.

With attendance in St. Petersburg continuing to lag as the team performed better on the field, the Rays shifted attention to Hillsborough County. Given a three-year window by Kriseman and the City Council to negotiate elsewhere in Tampa Bay, the Rays settled on a plan in 2018 to build a translucent roof stadium in Ybor City. That plan died months later when it was clear the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County were not willing to pay a substantial portion of the nearly $1 billion cost, and the team struggled to attract corporate support.

Since the collapse of the Ybor City stadium deal, the Rays say they have been focused on building two boutique-style stadiums — one in the Tampa Bay area and the other in Montreal.

Under that plan, the Rays would leave St. Pete before the rainy season and before the heat becomes unbearable, so a new stadium would not require a roof and, thus, would be less expensive to build.

The Rays have business partners with preliminary plans to build a stadium with private funds in Montreal, but the team’s use agreement does not allow for discussions of any games played elsewhere before the 2028 season. The Montreal group says it will not consider building a stadium until it has a contract guaranteeing the Rays are coming.