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Rays exec says team will know in six to nine months whether Ybor City site can work

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Rays have kept mum about what happens next if a financial deal isn't sealed for a new Ybor City ballpark by the end of the year.

That's the expiration date on their agreement with host St. Petersburg to look in Tampa for a new home.

But this week, Melanie Lenz, the team's chief development officer, told Ybor City residents and development officials that the Rays would know within six to nine months if a new ballpark will work there.

That means the alarm may sound on the Rays' Ybor dream as early as March.

Lenz made her comments at an informal brainstorming session with about 15 people Wednesday in Ybor City, said Courtney Orr, manager of the Ybor City Community Renewal Area.

RELATED COVERAGE Deadline clock ticking on Rays agreement with St. Pete

Lenz "stated that they'll probably have a general sense if it was a go or no go in six to nine months," Orr told members of the Tampa City Council at a renewal area meeting Thursday.

The Rays declined comment.

Lenz's comments didn't faze City Council member Mike Suarez, who said any deadline should be taken with a grain of salt.

"I remember when the Chicago White Sox were coming and all of sudden time stood still in Springfield, Illinois. These deals are never done until they're done," said Suarez, speaking of a deal struck in the Illinois capital to keep Chicago's American League team in the 1980s after a flirtation with Tampa Bay.

Suarez, who is running for mayor, had asked Orr to update council members on the Rays' ballpark search. He was more interested in something else Orr revealed: Lenz told the Ybor group the team planned to hire an architect in a couple of months.

To Suarez, that means the Rays already have a good idea what their ballpark and surrounding area will look like and how much it might cost, information they haven't shared with council members.

"They've never approached us as to what the final look will be," Suarez said. "That seems like putting the cart before the horse in some ways. I was still under the impression that they were still working out the land deal so that was a surprise."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan told the Tampa Bay Times last week that he didn't expect a deal to be inked before Dec. 31. That's when the memorandum of understanding between the Rays and St. Petersburg expires.

Any extension would have to be negotiated, possibly increasing the amount of money owed to St. Petersburg under terms of the memorandum if the Rays decide to leave, according to St. Petersburg officials.

Hagan said team officials have left him with the impression a financial package didn't need to be finalized before the end of the year. Instead, the team only had to inform St. Petersburg of its intention to build in Ybor.

Hagan didn't return a call Thursday.

The two-hour meeting in Ybor City didn't get into the details of deadlines and legal agreements, Orr said.

Instead, Ybor Development Corp. board members and neighborhood association presidents offered suggestions to Lenz and another Rays executive, senior director for public affairs Rafaela Amador, on how to integrate a ballpark into the historic center of the state's third-largest city.

"Everyone got a better sense of the Rays commitment to be inclusive of the community," Orr said. "We see that we're going to be embraced. They want to work with us."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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