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Rays and Kriseman reach agreement to allow Hillsborough stadium search

Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg is the current home of the Tampa Bay Rays. [City of St. Petersburg]
Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg is the current home of the Tampa Bay Rays. [City of St. Petersburg]
Published Dec. 9, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman and the Tampa Bay Rays have negotiated an agreement to let the team search for new stadium sites in Hillsborough County in exchange for payments to the city if the team leaves before its contract at Tropicana Field expires in 2027.

Kriseman wants the City Council to approve the "memorandum of understanding" at its meeting on Thursday.

Payments would be based on how many years remain on the Trop lease if the Rays leave, starting at $4 million a season until December 2018, dropping to $3 million a season from 2019 to 2022 and $2 million from 2023 through 2026.

The Rays would have to make any remaining bond payments on the Trop, about $2 million a year. The city would cover demolition expenses.

The Rays and Kriseman declined to comment Monday but the mayor has scheduled a 10 a.m. news conference today at the Trop to discuss details.

Council member Charlie Gerdes said the agreement is "a very, very positive thing," which brings clarity to how much the Rays would pay the city if the team moves out of St. Petersburg.

"The real value of an agreement is removing subjectivity," Gerdes said. "It defines what the punishment will be, so to speak."

Though some residents will think the Rays aren't paying enough, Gerdes said, ''we're not at odds anymore, we're going forward together and that's a good thing," he said.

Council member Darden Rice agreed that the deal is a good one. She said she's cautiously optimistic that the Rays, after looking, will decide to stay in the city.

"St. Pete isn't the same city as it was five years ago. It just has a whole new direction and vibe," she said.

However, former Mayor Bill Foster said Kriseman has failed to protect taxpayers.

"The numbers . . . surprise me. It's just not enough," Foster said. "It's a terrible disservice to the people of St. Petersburg. Their interests are being sold out for peanuts."

Demolition of the dome, which would costs millions of dollars, could wipe out most of the compensation, Foster said. And that does not begin to take into account "the economic impact to the businesses and people of St. Petersburg," he said.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said they were delighted. Both men have tried to woo the team across the bay for years.

"I commend Mayor Kriseman for his leadership on this issue," Hagan said.

If approved by the council, the deal would end a long standoff between the Rays and the city. The Rays contend that the Trop cannot support baseball in the long run because it is outdated and poorly located. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg has said he would not consider any new locations in St. Petersburg unless he could also look for sites in Tampa. Until Monday, city officials have refused to let him look.

Foster nearly reached a deal about a year ago, before talks broke off. After defeating Foster, Kriseman made a settlement with the Rays a high priority.

Key elements of the deal:

• The team can only look at locations in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

• The Rays have until December 31, 2017, to settle on a new site.

• If the team moves, it also will provide in-kind ongoing compensation of up to $1 million. This could include season tickets for marketing the city and signs in the new stadium touting St. Petersburg.

By agreeing to the memorandum now, the City Council will be locked into the compensation schedule and to what happens next.

The Rays would do traffic studies, cost estimates and get a general idea of what a new stadium would entail — both in Pinellas and Hillsborough — but they cannot sign contracts on a new site. If they find a location and financing they like, they would return to the city and negotiate a termination agreement.

Any disputes at that point would be settled by a circuit court judge in Manatee County.

For years, city officials worried that letting the team search for sites in Hillsborough County would undermine strong language in the Trop contract that binds the team to St. Petersburg.

If the Rays leave without permission, the contract says, it would cause "irreparable harm and damages'' to the city "that are not readily calculable in monetary terms.''

City attorney John Wolfe previously said that letting the Rays look for a new stadium in Tampa might constitute unspoken acknowledgment that maybe the team was not so valuable to the city after all. The Rays might then find it easier to leave the region because they would not have to worry so much about the city suing them.

The memo of understanding addresses this fear by saying it does not "nullify, excuse, or waive in any way or manner'' those previsions of the Trop contract.

Buckhorn said the Rays will take the lead in Tampa.

"This is not a process the city will drive," Buckhorn said.

What kind of public support could be available "will largely be determined by what the Rays are putting into it," Buckhorn said. "Certainly from the city's side, we are not entirely out of this recession."

Hagan said he would call the Rays to ask for a meeting with a working group that includes him, Buckhorn, Tampa Sports Authority president Eric Hart, Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes and Fifth Third Bank Tampa Bay president Brian Lamb.

Hagan said Hillsborough County would not raise taxes for a stadium, but the project will need public money.

"There will never be another Raymond James Stadium sweetheart deal," Hagan said. "Clearly the Rays and the private sector will have to finance a significant portion of the costs associated with the stadium.''

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Stephen Nohlgren at nohlgren@tampabay.com.

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