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St. Petersburg approves proposal letting Rays consider stadium sites outside city

St. Petersburg City Councilman Jim Kennedy, center reacts after his Rays proposal passed the City Council by a 5-3 vote, Thursday. [SCOTT KEELER    |      Times]
St. Petersburg City Councilman Jim Kennedy, center reacts after his Rays proposal passed the City Council by a 5-3 vote, Thursday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Oct. 23, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council approved a plan Thursday that lets the Tampa Bay Rays out of its Tropicana Field contract, a long-sought breakthrough that allows the team to explore new stadium sites outside St. Petersburg and inside Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

But the terms come with a higher cost for the Rays than what the team has previously agreed to, casting doubt that the plan represents a step forward in breaking a five-year stalemate.

Council member Jim Kennedy's plan passed by a 5-3 vote. It would require the team to pay a $5 million charge for demolition and $4 million a year once they vacate the Trop. If they leave in 2020, the Rays would pay $33 million.

That's a third more than a second proposal, by council Chairman Charlie Gerdes, that wasn't taken up for a vote. Kennedy's plan nearly doubles what the Rays would have paid in a deal council members rejected in May.

"Typically, you don't see offers get better with time," Mayor Rick Kriseman said afterward. "So that's a concern. The other concern is that the amount that the Rays are being asked to pay is more than they were asked to pay the first time."

The Rays, whose contract at the Trop runs out in 2027, must agree to the terms. Rays general counsel John Higgins attended the meeting but left immediately after the vote without making any comment.

"At this point, we have no comment," said Rafaela A. Amador, Rays spokeswoman, when contacted later.

Kennedy portrayed his plan as a "substantial compromise."

"I hope we did good," Kennedy said. "I hope we don't look back at this and regret it. I hope the Rays accept it and we can move forward."

But at least one council member who voted for the deal said he doesn't expect the Rays will agree to it.

"This plan has zero chance of being accepted by the Rays," Karl Nurse said after the vote. "But if you've ever bought a house, you know, you make an offer and hope they counter."

Nurse was the only council member to vote for the plan who previously approved attempts by Kriseman to broker a deal with the team. He said he would have voted for Gerdes' plan, too. Anything to get the city off the dime, he said.

The sides on the longstanding stalemate almost completely switched. Three of the four members who supported previous deals by Kriseman — Darden Rice, Amy Foster, Gerdes — voted against Kennedy's proposal.

Rice said she voted against it because it would hinder negotiations with the Rays.

"It's pretty simple," Rice tweeted. "Debating and supporting an unrealistic plan will undermine St. Pete's leverage in negotiations."

She said she would have voted for Gerdes' proposal, which she called "more realistic."

Gerdes said he thought Kennedy's offer was too punitive for the Rays — "too much of a backward jump" — and urged Kennedy to lower his $4 million annual payment that the team would be required to pay once it left the Trop.

But Kennedy held firm. He called for a vote on his plan first.

Kennedy and Gerdes have both said they acted with urgency after the Atlanta Braves revealed plans to build a spring training stadium in Pinellas, which would have vied for the same tax revenue the Rays would need for a stadium. Tired of waiting for the Rays and St. Petersburg to strike a deal, county commissioners used the Braves facility as a message that there were other options.

Commissioner Ken Welch took the vote as a positive sign.

"It's helpful that the dialogue has started again, and I'm looking forward to hearing the Rays' response to this," Welch said.

Council members Steve Kornell, Wengay Newton and Bill Dudley voted with Kennedy. Previously, those four council members had opposed any deal.

Gerdes said he thought his plan — which would have cost the team $22 million, or a third less than Kennedy's — was a better deal. But the important thing, he said, was that the council "put the ball in play."

Kriseman was dubious. He told the council before it voted that he would take any plan it passed to the Rays, but voiced concerns that it would be problematic to ask the team to pay more than previously discussed.

Under Kriseman's plan, which was rejected by council members for the second time in May, the team would have paid about $16 million under the most likely scenario. The Rays have said they won't pay more.

No meeting with the Rays has been scheduled to discuss the council's plan, said Ben Kirby, Kriseman's spokesman.

Thursday's special meeting was uncharacteristically short, lasting about an hour and 15 minutes. Foster and Rice didn't speak at all.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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