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Longtime foes of Tampa Bay Rays stadium deal mulling options

Published Oct. 15, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — A five-year freeze between the city and the Tampa Bay Rays appears to be thawing before next week's special meeting to discuss the team's future.

At least two council members who had long opposed letting the team out of its Tropicana Field lease agreement have recently discussed with Pinellas County commissioners ways to do just that.

Commissioners confirmed Wednesday that St. Petersburg council members Jim Kennedy and Steve Kornell spoke about terms of a deal that would allow the Rays to look for a stadium site outside of St. Petersburg.

Such openness to a deal comes a week before the council considers a proposal from Chairman Charlie Gerdes that would let the Rays out of the lease agreement, which extends to 2027, in exchange for fees.

Kennedy and Kornell make up a bloc of council members who have thwarted prior deals.

But Commissioner Janet Long said she spoke with Kennedy on Friday. He had spoken to county officials and the Rays about his plan, she said, and was waiting for feedback.

Another commissioner, Ken Welch, said he has spoken with both Kennedy and Kornell. Welch said Kornell has his own ideas about how to span the divide between city and team.

Neither commissioner would disclose details. They said they had promised to keep the conversations confidential.

"I'll just say the conversations were productive and far-ranging," Welch said.

Kennedy didn't return a phone call requesting comment.

Kornell said he doesn't have a plan. He just "batted around some ideas" with Welch, he said.

"It wouldn't be appropriate for me to have a plan," Kornell said. "The mayor is the one who has to negotiate."

Kornell said he recently has met twice with Rays president Brian Auld, but downplayed those visits as informal.

The Rays declined to comment.

In May, Kornell said he wanted the Rays to pay $55 million to look elsewhere. On Wednesday, however, he said he wasn't wedded to that number.

He did say he would object to anything less than what Mayor Rick Kriseman proposed in May — that the Rays would pay between $2 million and $4 million a year after they vacate the Trop.

Welch credited a recent proposal to use county tourist tax dollars on a spring training facility for the Atlanta Braves for spurring Kornell's and Kennedy's receptiveness to a new deal with the Rays.

"I believe Jim (Kennedy) understands now that the bed tax dollars from the commission are at risk now," Welch said. "I hope he gets it."

The Braves have asked for up to $10.5 million in annual bed tax money if they build on the 240-acre former "Toytown" landfill.

So far, only Gerdes' plan is on the agenda for next Thursday's meeting. He has further tweaked his proposal, eliminating an exploratory fee. Instead, the Rays would pay the city $1.4 million for each year between the time the team announces it has found a new home and when it vacates the Trop.

After that, they'd owe $2.5 million a year until the city's contract with the team expires in 2027, according to a copy of the plan obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

Kriseman's plan was defeated in a 5-3 vote. In May, a modified version that clarified development rights for the 85-acre Trop property failed by a 4-4 vote.

Kriseman said he hadn't been aware of the ideas being cooked up by council members. Now that the baseball season is over, Kriseman said he'll be meeting with Rays officials on a new deal.

"The Rays have made it very clear that if any proposal they receive, if the terms are better (for St. Petersburg) than what was on the table last time, they're not going to even consider it," Kriseman said. "They said that last deal was as good as it was going to get. They also have indicated that they don't want to negotiate with eight people. And that's typically what the job of the mayor is. I'm certainly open to feedback to find out from them what's important to you, what are you looking for, and see what we can craft."

Long agreed with the mayor: Too many cooks can spoil a stew.

"There can't be seven different people negotiating with the Rays," Long said. "That's really the mayor's job."

Times staff writer Claire McNeill contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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