Romano: City Council says no to Rays deal with potential development windfall

Published Dec. 19, 2014

The deal is off the table, and you should blame City Council members.

You might also want to praise them.

For, in baseball terms, they got a save.

An issue raised by St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse revealed that the terms of the city's proposed deal with the Tampa Bay Rays to allow them to look at other stadium sites may have tilted more toward the team's side than previously realized.

And when Nurse asked Rays president Brian Auld about it during Thursday night's council meeting, his corporate-speak answer essentially acknowledged that.

"He killed it right there,'' City Attorney John Wolfe said. "I was watching the faces of council members, and Auld lost a lot of their votes at that moment.''

The question had to do with the redevelopment rights for the 85 acres surrounding Tropicana Field. The original stadium use agreement calls for the city and the team to split profits 50-50 on any development of that land.

So Nurse asked if the Rays still expected the city to split redevelopment profits if the team had a deal to move to Tampa. In other words, did the Rays expect to make money off the Trop land even on their way out the door?

As long the Rays are in the Trop, Auld said, they would expect the city to live up to the terms of the original agreement.

"He didn't just say no, he said hell no,'' said council member Jim Kennedy. "It was a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, and that's not the best way to do business.''

Mayor Rick Kriseman knew this was going to be a sticking point, but he didn't include redevelopment rights in the proposed deal because that would have changed the terms of the original use agreement, and city attorneys worried that might give the Rays an escape hatch.

So the idea was that, if the Rays did find a home in Hillsborough, the redevelopment rights could be negotiated as part of a termination agreement.

The city would probably have to give up something too — perhaps the fees the Rays pay the city for each ticket sold during any lame duck seasons — but there is no way the Rays should be profiting when the city is acquiescing to their wishes.

The Rays recognize the redevelopment profits are extremely valuable, and that's probably why Auld was so curt when Nurse asked him about it.

The team could take the position that this was the deal that was negotiated, and the council shouldn't expect to renegotiate at the last minute.

Fair enough.

But the team also has to realize that council members have a duty to stick up for their residents, and it doesn't look good if the Rays get to leave town early AND pocket serious money in the process.

Here's another way of looking at it:

The Rays are asking the city to get out of the use agreement early so they can move on with their lives.

And yet they seem to be suggesting that they would invoke that same agreement to hold the city hostage when it tries to move on with redevelopment.

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"That was a deal breaker for me,'' said council member Amy Foster. "He essentially said, 'We want you to abide by the use agreement, but we're trying to get out of it ourselves.' "

So, we're back to an impasse.

But we do not need to be.

Kriseman did a fantastic job reopening the lines of communication with the Rays, and there is no reason both sides can't continue talking.

The Rays want out of Tropicana Field, and the city has spent the past year trying to be a good partner and accommodate them.

This time, it's the Rays turn to reciprocate.

They need to agree to renegotiate the redevelopment rights.