Officials: St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay Rays near deal to allow Hillsborough stadium search

The Rays are seeking the city's approval to seek a new site for a stadium so they can move out of Tropicana Field. --  Photo by JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times
The Rays are seeking the city's approval to seek a new site for a stadium so they can move out of Tropicana Field. -- Photo by JAMES BORCHUCK | Times
Published Nov. 12, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and the Tampa Bay Rays are nearing an agreement granting the team's long-standing wish to explore new stadium sites in Hillsborough County, people who have talked recently to the mayor say.

Kriseman "would like to get it done within the next month but definitely before Christmas'' so he can bring it to the City Council for approval, Council Chairman Bill Dudley said last week.

Council member Charlie Gerdes said Kriseman told him about two weeks ago "that talks are going very well.''

St. Petersburg developer Craig Sher, who chaired a stadium advisory committee for Kriseman, said this week, "I have been led to believe that there is an agreement in principle.''

Lawyers are still working out how to alter, or add to, current contractual arrangements, said Sher. "Any time you get lawyers involved it can take time.

Neither Kriseman nor the Rays would comment on what any agreement might entail.

Dudley, who meets with the mayor weekly, said one critical element would be monetary compensation for the city if the Rays leave for Hillsborough before 2027, when their contract to play at Tropicana Field expires.

"I don't know what the number is," Dudley said, but added that city lawyers are working on contractual language "to protect our interests."

Baseball stadium announcements often take place late in the year because Major League Baseball tries to avoid controversy during the season. By November, the World Series has ended and spring training is still three or four months away. The Atlanta Braves announced their new Cobb County stadium a year ago today.

With tepid and declining attendance, the Rays have angled for a new stadium for several years.

Owner Stuart Sternberg contends the Trop is poorly located for both fans and corporate support.

Sternberg told Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissioners last year that he wants to remain in Tampa Bay but needs a "pitch perfect'' site. To figure out where that may be, he said, he needs to look in both counties.

The Trop contract forbids the Rays from negotiating with anyone to play in a new stadium before the 2028 season. Former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster used that provision to block any cross-bay stadium search.

Kriseman, who took office early this year, made resolution with the Rays a high priority. He wants the team to stay in St. Petersburg, he has said, but also thinks a two-county stadium search might be necessary to keep them in the region over the long run.

"If the Rays simply do not want to be here any longer, then they should be given the opportunity to compensate our city in order to look at other locations in the Tampa Bay area,'' Kriseman said during last year's mayoral campaign. "Throughout the negotiating process I will ensure that our taxpayers are protected."

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Compensation for St. Petersburg has always been a key sticking point.

Last year, Gerdes proposed to the City Council that the Rays pay an up-front fee for the right to go looking in Hillsborough. A later buyout price would be negotiated if the team were to work out a stadium deal in Hillsborough.

The Rays would also have to pay for tearing down the Trop.

Gerdes' colleagues on the council did not exhibit much support and that proposal died.

Then in the summer of 2013, Foster and the Rays came close to a deal based on a different compensation scheme. There would be no up-front fee just to go look — but the final buyout price would be arranged in advance.

Foster reportedly was asking about $5 million for each season lost, and the Rays were reportedly offering around $2 million to $3 million.

Those talks broke down in August 2013 during a heated mayoral primary. But Dudley said last week that a prearranged compensation plan "is still in play.''

He said he did not know the dollar amounts.

Under the Trop contract, the Rays pay the city a small amount for every fan through the turnstiles, most of which flows back to a capital reserve fund for stadium maintenance. The city pays property insurance on the Trop, which can fluctuate a great deal depending on the worldwide insurance market. The city also incurs police overtime costs for traffic control on game days. In most years, the city ends up with a net operating loss on the Trop.

Paying off the Trop's construction bonds also costs the city roughly $6 million a year, but that debt ends after next season.

One factor driving negotiations is the increasing value of the Trop's 85 acres, which sit empty most of the year and, because they are county property, do not generate tax revenue. Before a waterfront stadium idea fizzled, a developer offered to buy the Trop acreage for $65 million and phase in a master-planned development over 10 years.

Apartment complexes, micro-breweries and restaurants are already going up on nearby properties. Ending the stadium stalemate could help the city unlock the Trop's development potential — with or without a new stadium, Dudley said.

His preference is for a new stadium at the eastern end of the Trop property, combined with a hotel and small convention center for gatherings of 2,000 to 3,000 people. The city could sweeten the pot by giving the Rays full development rights on remaining Trop land, Dudley said.

If that's not possible, he said, he would like to proceed with developing the Trop acreage without a stadium.

"We are being held hostage'' with an undeveloped Trop, Dudley said. If the Ray "are not going to use it, then we want to. If you are not going to use it, it's best to get on with it."

Gerdes thinks the Rays will not find what they are looking for in Hillsborough County. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik has locked up prime land in the Channelside district of Tampa and has given no signs that he is eager to devote 10 or 12 acres of his land to a baseball stadium.

Even without land costs, any stadium would cost $500 million to $600 million — and Gerdes doubts that Hillsborough taxpayers would want to shoulder much of that load.

"A lot of the places they are looking at in Tampa are no longer available,'' Gerdes said. "St. Petersburg's chances of keeping them in Pinellas County are increasing. I think we have the competitive advantage, so let them go look.''

First, Kriseman has to sell any deal to the City Council, which may not be easy.

Council member Amy Foster said her constituents are frustrated by the long, secretive negotiations. "A lot of people feel like these negotiations should take place in the sunshine," she said.

Plenty of others are just fed up with the notion of the Rays leaving the Trop early, she said.

"There are a lot of folks who say, 'Don't do anything. This is it. A deal is a deal,' "