Hardball: Rays threaten to block redevelopment of Tropicana Field

Rays officials have told City Council members the team could prevent St. Petersburg from developing the Trop’s 86 acres, one of the most important parcels in the city.
Fans enter Tropicana Field for the Tampa Bay Rays' games against the Boston Red Sox in March 2018.
Fans enter Tropicana Field for the Tampa Bay Rays' games against the Boston Red Sox in March 2018.
Published Jan. 30, 2020|Updated Jan. 30, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays are now playing hardball with the most lucrative piece of property in the city.

Rays officials have told City Council members that the team will hold up any attempts to develop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site while its locked into playing at the dome through the 2027 season.

That’s what team president Brian Auld conveyed to council members during a spate of rapid-fire meetings held Tuesday and Wednesday, according to two council members.

Mayor Rick Kriseman has refused to allow the team to pursue its plan of playing a split-season in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal as soon as 2024. The Rays believe it is the only way to save baseball in the bay area.

Related: Three mayors. One owner. No deal. St. Pete's futile history with the Rays.

The city and team have been at an impasse since Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg announced the split-season idea in June. The Rays’ declaration is the latest escalation of rhetoric as relations between the team and City Hall have deteriorated since the summer announcement.

The revelation of the Rays’ hardball stance comes the day before what could be a contentious meeting between the City Council members and the Krisemans administration on Thursday about the fate of the Rays and the land underneath the Trop.

Council members Amy Foster and Darden Rice both said Auld, in his meetings with them this week, referenced a quote from former St. Petersburg city attorney John Wolfe that appeared in a July 15, 2019 Tampa Bay Times article about the redevelopment of Tropicana Field.

Related: St. Petersburg's future lies beneath Tropicana Field. Do the Rays stand in the way?

The Trop’s use agreement binds the team to the city. But Wolfe, who wrote the contract, said it could also be used by the team to bind the city.

“They could certainly delay it for years if they wanted to,” Wolfe told the Times, regarding any attempt to develop the land without the Rays’ permission.

Rice said the message was clear: If the Rays are forced to abide by the Trop’s use agreement and stay in St. Petersburg through 2027, then the team is prepared to exercise its rights against the city.

The Trop lease explicitly prevents the team from playing home games anywhere but the Trop through the end of the 2027 season. It even has a powerful exclusivity clause that prevents the team from negotiating to play elsewhere during the lease term. That means the Rays can’t start serious discussions about a split season before 2027 without the city voluntarily suspending the exclusivity clause.

Kriseman announced in a December memo he won’t do that, halting any attempt to explore the split-season idea, at least for now.

Related: Rick Kriseman kills Rays’ plan to split season in Montreal. Now what?

The mayor had hoped to use the lucrative development rights to convince the team to stay in St. Petersburg and play in a new publicly-financed stadium. The city and team would share in the proceeds from any development on the site through 2027. Because of that, the use agreement gives the team some say over the land.

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But what if the Rays use their rights over the land to stymie the city?

“Subject to the reasonable approval of the CLUB and provided that the CLUB’s operations of the Dome are not unreasonably impaired,” the agreement says in a section called “air rights,” the city can sell or lease the land for development.

What’s the definition of “reasonable” or “unreasonable?” Wolfe said last year if the team and the city can’t agree, it could be up to a judge. That’s why the Rays believe they could tie up the land in court for years.

Related: Did the Rays' talks with Montreal violate the Tropicana Field lease?

The team’s position threatens Kriseman’s desire to start building on the Trop land as soon as possible. He has previously said development could commence even before the Rays’ fate is ironed out.

The Tampa Bay Times asked the Kriseman administration if they were aware of the Rays’ stance.

“The mayor is not going to comment on specific conversations he’s had with the Tampa Bay Rays and would refer you to the details of the use agreement,” said mayoral spokesperson Ben Kirby.

The Rays declined to comment.

Related: Rays to explore splitting home games with Montreal