In St. Petersburg's mayoral battle, disagreement over funds that could keep the Tampa Bay Rays from leaving

A key source of funding to help build the Tampa Bay Rays a new stadium in St. Petersburg are the development rights to the 85-acre Tropicana Field site. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Tampa Bay Times]
A key source of funding to help build the Tampa Bay Rays a new stadium in St. Petersburg are the development rights to the 85-acre Tropicana Field site. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Tampa Bay Times]
Published May 29, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman and former mayor Rick Baker, now locked in a high-profile mayoral election, have both spent a lot of their time in City Hall dealing with the Tampa Bay Rays' desire to build a new stadium.

That issue has intensified as the race heads into the Aug. 29 primary:

Baker told the Tampa Bay Times he was open to all options to keep the team in the city except for a tax increase. But he would not commit to using financial incentives.

One of the biggest incentives would be the contractual rights for developing Tropicana Field's 85 acres, one of the most coveted parcels of real estate in Tampa Bay.

The Rays and the city have agreed to split revenue derived from the development of the Trop site 50-50. Kriseman has floated the idea of using that revenue to pay for the bonds needed to build a new stadium — and keep the team from moving to Tampa.

"I'm open to discussing all options," Baker said. "But I'm not willing to make any commitments at all until I can analyze it. I'm a very deliberate, analytical guy."

Baker said he'd study the idea. But his opponent said there's no need to: without the development rights, the city would hurt its chances of keeping the Rays.

"If we want the team we won't spend the next couple of years after they say they want to stay in St. Pete doing a study," Kriseman said. "Otherwise they're gone. And you don't have to worry about your study."

The Trop's development rights are seen as giving Pinellas County an edge over Hillsborough County in helping the Rays pay for a new home. Pinellas officials believe they have other pots of money: the sixth tourism cent (which Hillsborough failed to qualify for); $6 million a year in tourism taxes that paid off the Trop's bonds in 2015 and could be used again; and revenue from the downtown tax increment finance district.

The Rays' legal claim to the Trop's development rights is contained in the use agreement with the city. There shouldn't be anything to discuss regarding development rights, Kriseman said, which could be worth hundreds of millions.

"(The Rays) have that right," the mayor said. "They are entitled to that. (Baker) has to honor it. This is a contract that was signed we entered into."

The Rays declined to comment on the matter.

Kriseman has said the city will have enough money to pitch in for a new stadium if the team decides to stay. But he has declined to get into specifics about how much the money the city would spend. The Rays have also not discussed how much they would contribute.

The Rays are nearly halfway through a three-year search for a site on both sides of the bay to build a new ballpark, estimated to cost north of $650 million. New stadiums for the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas and the Atlanta Braves suburban Atlanta have topped $1 billion.

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Baker was mayor during the team's ill-fated attempt to build a waterfront stadium in 2007, which was met with fierce opposition from downtown residents. Some have blamed Baker's ambivalence for the team's decision to scuttle the plan in June 2008.

Much of Kriseman's first two years in office were spent trying to forge an agreement with the Rays to allow them to search outside the city for a site to build a new ballpark. The team's deal with the city kept it from looking anywhere else.

Kriseman's first attempt to broker a deal with the Rays that would allow the team to look in Hillsborough was voted down 5-3 by the City Council in December 2014. It took more than a year — and a key council election — to cobble together the majority needed to pass his plan on the second try in January 2016.

If campaign cash is any indication, the Rays have made it clear who they would like to see in the mayor's office. Rays owner Stu Sternberg has contributed $10,000 to Kriseman's re-election campaign. Other minority owners and team executives have chipped in at least $24,750. Contribution records for the Baker campaign are not yet available.

In April, Sternberg said the team's top stadium sites on both sides of the bay were no longer viable, but the team was continuing it search. An announcement could be made by the end of the year.

Council member Jim Kennedy, who endorsed Baker this month, said it doesn't surprise him that the former mayor isn't showing his cards on the development rights.

"I don't see Mayor Baker pre-negotiating anything," Kennedy said.

But Council member Charlie Gerdes, who supports Kriseman, said re-opening discussions over development rights would jeopardize any attempt to keep the Rays.

"We're going to expect the Rays to participate in funding in a pretty substantial way," Gerdes said. "The best way to make that happen is to let the Rays participate in development proceeds.

"If you take development rights away, it makes that way more difficult. Perhaps impossible."

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