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Meet the middlemen helping to bring the Tampa Bay Rays to Ybor City

Ron Christaldi, a lawyer with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, poses for a portrait in his downtown Tampa office Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. Christaldi, along with businessman Charles Sykes, created the nonprofit that has obtained rights to the land in Ybor City (seen behind him) where a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark could one day be located. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
Ron Christaldi, a lawyer with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, poses for a portrait in his downtown Tampa office Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. Christaldi, along with businessman Charles Sykes, created the nonprofit that has obtained rights to the land in Ybor City (seen behind him) where a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark could one day be located. LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Published Nov. 7, 2017

TAMPA — From his corner office on the 29th floor of a downtown Tampa skyscraper, Ron Christaldi can see the warehouses in Ybor City that may one day become the Tampa Bay Rays' ballpark.

Christaldi now largely controls those warehouses. If everything goes as planned, he won't for long.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan recently unveiled his pitch to turn 14 acres near Ybor City into a new home for the Rays. The announcement came with another revelation: a newly formed nonprofit had acquired the rights to most of the land there and would hold it for the county until the Rays were ready to make a deal.

Behind that nonprofit are two former chairmen of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce — Sykes Enterprises CEO Charles Sykes and Christaldi, a partner at the powerhouse Tampa law firm Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick. They have helped the county overcome some early struggles and narrow the possibilities to what officials are now saying is the Rays' hand-picked location for a Tampa ballpark.

"Somebody's got to stop talking about it and start figuring it out," Christaldi said. "What Chuck and I realized is if we don't take the risk, if we don't step up, nobody does it."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough officials say new Rays ballpark should go in Ybor City

Specifics of the agreement between the nonprofit and landowners there remain under wraps. Already, two county commissioners have questioned the secretive nature of ballpark discussions.

"This whole thing has been done in a vacuum, behind the scenes, out of the sunshine," Commissioner Victor Crist said.

And for a board that saw its last big effort, transportation, derailed amid accusations of insider influence, its stadium aspirations are now tied to two well-connected businessmen who negotiated an agreement that officials don't know the details of yet.

Hagan is not worried.

"Chuck Sykes and Ron Christaldi are above reproach," he said. "Their track record of community service speaks for itself."

•••

After St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman negotiated an agreement in 2015 to allow the Rays to explore the possibilities east of Tampa Bay, Hillsborough officials had little to offer that they actually controlled and that also met the team's criteria for a new ballpark.

But someone else did.

During the last few years, BluePearl Veterinary Services CEO Darryl Shaw has purchased Ybor property at a rapid clip, spending $63 million with a handful of partners. His acquisitions include a bundle of parcels east of Channelside Drive that the Rays had previously eyed.

Hagan approached Christaldi and Sykes about acquiring the site from Shaw. The two had a longstanding interest in bringing the Rays to Tampa — they studied the topic years ago at the chamber, and Sykes was Hillsborough's representative to the ABC Coalition baseball study committee in 2010. They often talked baseball together and with the Rays' front office.

"It really made sense for the private sector to take the lead because it can move quicker," Hagan said. "Equally important is we need to show Major League Baseball there's significant community support for a ballpark."

Christaldi and Sykes engaged Vincent Nuccio, Shaw's lawyer, about obtaining an option agreement for the land. With talks progressing, Christaldi filed incorporation papers on Aug. 22 for a new nonprofit, SC Hillsborough Corporation. ("SC," Christaldi said, stood for "South Cooperstown," for the "genesis of the next generation of baseball in Hillsborough," though it's a nice coincidence it doubles as the initials for Sykes-Christaldi.)

On Oct. 24, Hagan announced SC Hillsborough Corp. had an option agreement with Shaw that gave the county a nine-month window with a potential six-month extension to negotiate a deal with the Rays.

"If we were able to present something that's a tangible thing to the county, then the commissioners could debate it, citizens could weigh in on it, you can start to do some engineering to figure out what it would cost to ready that site," Christaldi said.

"If it's not the right site or the county's not interested or the citizens are not interested, that's fine. But at least now we've got something to talk about that's defined and controlled. If we decide we want to attack on it, then we've got it."

Sykes' office referred reporters' inquiries about the effort to Christaldi.

Christaldi, Sykes and Nuccio negotiated the sale price of the properties without input from Hagan, County Attorney Chip Fletcher or County Administrator Mike Merrill on how much the county would be willing to offer to acquire the land. Hagan, Fletcher and Merrill still don't know what Christaldi agreed to, they said.

Christaldi declined to provide those details, though he said the agreement "is what we believe to be fair market value for the parcels." (The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office estimates the combined market value of the parcels at over $6.5 million.) Shaw did not respond to a request for comment.

Fletcher said the price in the agreement is not necessarily final, and state statutes dictate how much governments can pay to buy property. Hagan noted that the county or city of Tampa could offer to swap land to lower the price, too.

"I would view it more as an offer more than a negotiated price," Fletcher said.

Christaldi said he and Sykes will not receive financial compensation for making the deal.

"There's definitely no finders fee or markup," he said.

They haven't discussed yet whether to ask for some of their expenses to be reimbursed, and they will likely eat the option fee to hold the land, Christaldi said. He said the option fee for the parcels is enough to entice Shaw but "wouldn't cause most people to say, 'Holy smokes.' "

So why do it? Christaldi's father and three young children have a personal attachment to baseball, he said. Beyond that, he said it would detrimental to the community if the Rays left, and that site would complement other ambitious plans for downtown Tampa, from the Jeff Vinik-Cascade Investment Water Street Tampa project to the redevelopment in the Heights and projects west of the Hillsborough River.

"All those things together, 20 years from now if we can pull it off, people are going to be looking at Tampa saying, 'Wow, this is an extraordinary place,' " he said.

Christaldi said he expects nothing in return for himself or his law firm, which already does a lot of work with and for local governments. Since 2011, Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick has collected about $250,000 in legal fees for government work done for Hillsborough County and $61,500 from the city of Tampa. Christaldi is president of the government relations arm of his firm, which has five lobbyists registered with the county.

A registered Democrat, he has donated $21,500 to local candidates and parties on both sides of the aisle, including a $1,000 check for Hagan in June. Sykes has donated $12,000.

Between June and August, Hagan also received $8,000 from companies registered to Shaw or from an address associated with Shaw businesses.

"Time bares out the facts on those things," Christaldi said, "and I would welcome folks to continue to watch me over time and see."

•••

Tampa also looked to the private sector in the 1990s to make possible a Tampa Bay Lightning arena in downtown Tampa.

Supporters of a downtown arena did it by working quietly to arrange for options on land held by 11 different property owners so the Lightning didn't end up wrangling with one or two holdouts. Beneficial Corp., which developed Harbour Island, and its CEO, Finn Caspersen, put up a total of $8.7-million to secure options or buy acreage surrounding the arena site. It then held the land for the project.

Caspersen said he supported downtown arena efforts so strongly because he saw the arena as a crucial piece of an overall plan to foster development along the waterfront, where Beneficial has itself invested millions of dollars.

"It just needed to be jump-started," Caspersen said just before the arena opened in 1996.

Sandy Freedman, who was Tampa's mayor in the early 1990s, said Caspersen's help was critically important.

"I don't think we could have done the deal because that land, every time government talked to anybody about it, the price went up," she said. "There's only one way to do it unless you want to be taken to the cleaners."

Freedman said she believes in the public having the right to know as much as possible, and while Caspersen's help wasn't known generally when it happened, "we made it public real quick."

"I think (Caspersen) said to us, 'I know you're having trouble trying to get that parcel. And I'll be happy to buy it," Freedman said. Caspersen also guaranteed the price wouldn't go up from what he paid.

"It was the same price that he got it for," she said.

Told that the baseball site nonprofit includes Sykes and Christaldi, Freedman said, "they're reputable people. If we're talking about just those two, I believe them. I would trust them. They have to live in this community when it's over."

But, she said, "if they start adding more people to the mix," then it would be good for the county to get the same kind of guarantee that Caspersen provided.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com and Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com.

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