ST. PETERSBURG — This summer, the Tampa Bay Rays and city officials quietly tried to find a way to let the team look for a new stadium site in Tampa.
Those negotiations fell apart in September, amid an intense election season, but they did lay groundwork for keeping baseball in Tampa Bay.
City attorneys and the Rays apparently overcame one major hurdle — contractual language to protect St. Petersburg's legal position if things go awry.
They also fashioned a possible financial formula for an early exit: The team would pay to demolish Tropicana Field, plus compensate the city for every lost year of play up to 2027, when the Trop contract expires.
Negotiations halted before the two sides could agree on the amount of compensation. But at least at one point, several possible roadblocks had narrowed to one: cash.
Now St. Petersburg has elected a new mayor who will take office Jan. 2. Rick Kriseman said this week he intends to make new stadium talks a top priority.
Interviews with council members and others show a changing climate that may help push discussions along.
• Public opinion: An October Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/WUSF Public Media poll showed that 48 percent of St. Petersburg residents now favor allowing the Rays to seek stadium options in Tampa. Thirty-nine percent oppose it.
• Trop development: St. Petersburg interests are increasingly contemplating the worth of the Trop's 85 acres without baseball. Development is pushing west from the downtown core. Light rail could be coming to the area, as well as a new headquarters for Jabil Circuit, both transformative events.
• A growing sense of urgency: Woeful attendance has sapped the region's credibility as a baseball market; leverage to keep the Rays will dwindle long before 2027. A new stadium would probably take at least five years to plan and build, and it's not clear that taxpayers in any city will ever agree to fund one.
As St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said in August: We are 14 years out, but time is starting to run short. "If your goal is keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in Tampa Bay until 2050,'' he said, "you have to let them look in Tampa.''
In February, City Council member Charlie Gerdes proposed a way to end the city's long-standing stalemate with its baseball team.
The Rays say the Trop cannot support Major League Baseball, and downtown Tampa is closer to the region's corporate and demographic center. St. Petersburg, having spent several hundred million dollars on baseball, has so far refused to let the team look.
The Gerdes plan: Charge the Rays an annual exploration fee — say $1 million or $2 million — to look around. Then, if they cut a deal with Tampa, negotiate a full buyout price.
The council rejected the idea, partly on long-standing advice from City Attorney John Wolfe that such an arrangement could weaken the city's legal position.
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The Trop contract says the city would suffer "incalculable" damages if the team left without permission. If the city assigns dollar amounts to an early exit, Wolfe said, the Rays could argue that damages were no longer "incalculable,'' pay the damages and break the contract.
Gerdes said he asked about these legal worries in August, when Foster briefed him on the negotiations. He was told exploration fees were not an issue.
"They were talking end-game type solutions — Trop demolition, payment for leaving early and possibly reimbursement for lost sales taxes, which were minor," Gerdes said.
The Trop's main bonds would be paid off well before any stadium could open in Tampa. Minor bonds, backed by state sales taxes, could be rolled into another state bond issue for a new stadium.
What about the city's legal position?
"I was worried about that," Gerdes said. "But Foster said we are comfortable now that we are covered. Both sides looked at the (contract) language and came up with a way'' to protect the city's rights.
Council member Steve Kornell thinks any move toward Tampa is premature. He holds out hope that the team might agree to a new stadium in Pinellas without exploring Hillsborough options.
"St. Petersburg is a very viable city for business," Kornell said. "The whole rhetoric that Tampa is the magical answer and we are the second choice is wrong.''
The Rays should talk to St. Petersburg developer Echelon about its proposed stadium in Carillon Business Park, Kornell said, as well as open their financial records and wait for a Pinellas County vote next year that could eventually put two light rail stops near the Trop.
"Prove to me first that baseball is not viable here,'' he said, "and then I will consider letting you look somewhere else.''
Gerdes doubts the Rays would ever accept Kornell's scenario.
"They have said they will have a good faith look at Carillon,'' Gerdes said, "but they have pretty much decided that Hillsborough is where they need to be.''
That's why Foster started negotiating, Gerdes said. "He is convinced that the only way to keep them in Tampa Bay in the long run is to let them look" so "let's get something in return for that.''
The Rays have never overtly threatened to leave the Tampa Bay area. But the prospect of stadium offers from competing regions is growing less remote, said Craig Sher, a retired executive from St. Petersburg's Sembler development company. Sher served on a civic group that studied the stadium issue and maintains close ties to Foster and Kriseman.
By contract, the Rays cannot negotiate any deal to play anywhere else through 2027. But legally, they could talk right now to, say Charlotte, N.C., or Montreal, about building a new stadium there that would be ready for a 2028 opening.
The actual target date could come much sooner, Sher said, because a suitor city could offer to buy additional years off the Trop contract.
Would $50 million, for example, entice the city to allow a 2022 exit if fans knew their team was leaving in 2028 for sure?
A national stadium search would be a messy, last resort strategy for the Rays. It would alienate fans with no certain prospect of success. But an open-air stadium in another city would be $150 million or so cheaper than a roofed stadium in Tampa Bay. That edge alone could provide cash for a Trop buyout.
If nothing else, letting competing cities creep into the equation increases the Rays' leverage during negotiations here, Sher noted. The team will pay a chunk of construction costs, but their options elsewhere will help determine how much.
"I think the Tampa Bay area needs to be out of the ground'' with a new stadium "by the first quarter of 2018 for an opening day in 2020,'' Sher said.
If the Rays reach 2018 with no stadium in sight, he said, "they might as well wait and explore what other cities can offer.''
When the Rays pitched a downtown waterfront stadium in 2008, a developer bid $65 million to buy the Trop property and build $1.2 billion worth of offices, stores and housing.
Even without such a grand plan, natural development encroaching from the east may soon make the Trop's largely empty parking lot a poor use of space, said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse.
A one-block apartment complex is filling up two streets away, and the city is negotiating with Jabil Circuit to build a three-block headquarters one street away.
"If we do a good job over the next 36 months, we are going to run out of land,'' Nurse said.
He proposes a novel exploration deal for letting the Rays research Tampa stadium sites.
The city owns an empty block on 10th Street that borders the stadium. By contract, the Rays use it for overflow parking. Let the city build a parking garage there, Nurse said, and for every new space created, let the city begin developing a similar size footprint inside the Trop parking lot.
By day, the garage could support Jabil or other businesses inside and outside the Trop acreage. Baseball fans could use it on nights and weekends.
"It's a win-win," Nurse said. "It might bring a few thousand more people working and living near the stadium.'' And it wouldn't hurt attendance.
Sher said a final buyout price should be tied to Trop redevelopment. Phasing it in would probably take a decade, he said, and could include research, academic and medical facilities.
"It would be an expansion of what we already have — a number of scientists, hospitals and universities already functioning in that area that are kind of landlocked.''
The Rays could pay maybe $5 million to tear down the Trop, he said, another $10 million to $15 million" for streets, water pipes and sewer lines, and a few million dollars for planning.
"I'm not an expert,'' Sher said, "but call it in the neighborhood of $20 million to $25 million."
Who knows if baseball will be popular in 20, 30 or 50 years, he said, but a built-out development at that site "would create thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of economic activity for the next century."