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Rays' president strikes cooperative tone on stadium deal with St. Petersburg

Rays official Matt Silverman cited momentum.
Rays official Matt Silverman cited momentum.
Published Dec. 20, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — A day after the City Council slammed the stadium door on the Tampa Bay Rays, two main players made pointed overtures toward reconciliation.

"Despite the tally last night there seems to be good momentum toward reaching an agreement,'' Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said Friday, referring to the council's 5-3 vote against a plan to let the team explore stadium sites in Hillsborough County.

"I expect conversations with the city will continue as we work toward an agreeable outcome,'' Silverman said.

Council member Karl Nurse — whose question about Tropicana Field development rights sent Thursday's meeting into a tailspin — predicted a deal could be worked out if the Rays "show some flexibility."

Mayor Rick Kriseman was leaving for a week's vacation and did not answer questions Friday.

But others hailed Silverman's optimistic tone, which contrasted sharply with earlier, tougher statements from team officials.

"We were hoping people didn't retreat and not talk for a couple years," said Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. "Conversations are good. Lets keep having conversations."

Council member Darden Rice said the stakes are too high to let bad feelings linger or lose momentum.

"We all owe it to each other, we owe it to the community and the future of major league baseball to have those thoughtful discussions," Rice said.

Under the proposed agreement — negotiated this month by Kriseman — the Rays would have paid the city $2 million to $4 million a year if they left St. Petersburg before their contract expires in 2027.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg had warned that he would not renegotiate any of the terms. If the council rejected the deal, he said, baseball in Tampa Bay was "doomed." Neither he nor any other owner would play at the Trop after the contract expires.

During Thursday's meeting, Rays president Brian Auld would not yield an inch on Nurse's development rights issue. Council members got their backs up, called Auld's response arrogant and voted the deal down.

Silverman's olive branch Friday brought relief to council members and others.

"I think it's everything that most of us have hoped for — that the parties involved were not so entrenched as to be unable to look for common ground and that Mr. Silverman seems to think it's doable," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.

Nurse said it's in everyone's best interest to back away from the blame game.

"My hope is everyone takes a deep breath. Cool off,'' he said.

The Trop development rights that caught Nurse's eye date back to when the city and original team owner Vince Naimoli negotiated the Trop contract. Both parties thought baseball might draw enough fans to justify a hotel on the Trop parking lot.

The city would replace lost parking spaces and subtract that cost from any sale or lease income. Then, the city and team would split any remaining proceeds equally.

Kriseman's deal gave the Rays three years to find a new stadium site and possible financing. If the team decided to move, they would sign a "termination agreement'' to cover Trop operations during the three or four transition years it would take put the new ballpark in place.

Nurse wanted to know how development rights would be divided during that transition window. He asked: If the Rays plan to leave, why should they share in sale or lease of land?

With the western edge of downtown finally catching fire, a hotel on an outlying parcel is not the only option. Theoretically, five or 10 or 20 of the Trop's 85 acres might come into play for apartments, condos or even office buildings while the team is still playing in St. Petersburg.

Before the recession, a developer bid $65 million for the entire Trop acreage, and several council members bandied around that figure as the benchmark for what they might have to share with the Rays.

On Friday, developer Craig Sher said "it is almost impossible to project'' the Trop's acreage value while the team is still playing but before they leave. Any major buyer would want certainty about the stadium's fate, and a Rays deal in, say, Tampa could always fall through.

"ABC corporation is not going to build an officer tower in a parking lot and have all that concrete around them.''

Intense development of the Trop during the transition period could also disrupt attendance and reduce parking revenues and the Rays would have veto power over any project.

City Attorney John Wolfe said the Rays and city never discussed development rights during negotiations. It only came up a few days before the council meeting, when Nurse asked the city legal staff to clarify it.

Nurse, who voted to approve the agreement Thursday, said the rights issue does not need to be settled now. He could accept negotiating those rights when the Rays announce they are leaving and all the wind-down issues are addressed.

Nurse said he's confident that if the Rays promise to negotiate in good faith, the council will approve the deal.

Times staff writers Marc Topkin and Tony Marrero contributed to this report.

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