ST. PETERSBURG — It’s been more than seven months since the Tampa Bay Rays unveiled their plan to split home games between the bay area and Montreal.
Nearly two months have passed since Mayor Rick Kriseman rejected the plan, saying he would not allow the Rays to negotiate to start playing in Montreal in 2024.
The fate of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay lays trapped in that impasse. So on Thursday, the St. Petersburg City Council asked the mayor for an update on where negotiations stand between the city and the team.
Kriseman said he would tell them — but not in public.
“I don’t have anything substantive I can share with you publicly," the mayor said.
Instead, he told the eight council members he will update them in private, individual meetings — which are not subject to Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine laws.
Kriseman did, however, publicly address the Rays’ recent threat: to stymie development of the 86-acre Tropicana Field so long as they are locked into playing in the dome through 2027. The mayor and city officials are anxious to begin development there.
Earlier this week Rays’ officials told council members the same contract that requires the team to play all its home games at the dome through the 2027 season also gives the team a say over what’s built on the land. Team officials believe they could tie the land up in court if the city forces the team to finish its lease at the Trop.
Kriseman rejected that stance, saying the city can move forward on Trop development while the team’s future in St. Petersburg remains unsettled.
“The use agreement is very clear regarding the rights afforded to each party," Kriseman said. Any development on the land is subject to “reasonable” approval by the club.
The Rays have a legal right to play baseball and to have fans come out to watch. So long as future construction at the Trop site does not impede those endeavors, “denial of approval would be unreasonable," the mayor said.
“We are certain that there is development that could occur on the site.”
After the meeting, Rays officials issued a short statement:
“Time is of the essence, and we appreciate the Council’s time and attention to this matter. Our focus is on the Sister City concept, and we will work with all those who believe it is an idea that merits exploration and consideration.”
The Rays’ attempt to leverage the city is the latest escalation of tensions between the city and the team over the split-season concept the Rays introduced in June. The team wants to build new stadiums in the Tampa Bay and Montreal markets and split home games: the spring games in Florida before the rainy season kicks in, and the summer games in Montreal.
Rays principal owner Stu Sternburg has said it’s the only way to preserve big league baseball in the bay area. He wants to launch the split-season arrangement as early as 2024.
But the Trop’s use agreement includes a powerful exclusivity clause that precludes the team from even exploring the concept before 2027. The team would need the city to suspend that clause to make any plans for a new stadium — whether in Tampa Bay or elsewhere — prior to 2028. But the Rays are free to explore playing anywhere else for the 2028 season and beyond.
After a cool reception of the split-season idea, Kriseman formally rejected it in December. He announced that he would not suspend the exclusivity requirements, locking the team into the Trop for 81 home games a year for eight more seasons.
Thursday was the latest indication that he will not budge. But it was also the first time some council members expressed support for at least exploring the split-season plan.
Council member and likely 2021 mayoral candidate Darden Rice, who asked for Thursday’s meeting to discuss the Rays’ situation and Trop redevelopment, said the “apparent stalemate could be bad for the city."
She posited that attempting any development without the Rays’ blessing would be difficult, especially with the threat of litigation looming. She also stressed she didn’t want the development to commence piecemeal.
Kriseman countered that Rice’s concerns felt like “talking points from the Rays.” He said the city would solicit bids for a master developer to oversee a complete project, and it could be years before any ground is actually broken. So the Rays pose no threat to development in the short-term, he said.
Council vice chair Gina Driscoll lamented Kriseman’s decision to refuse to explore the split-season concept, saying the city could always veto it later.
“But I want to find out," she said. "I want the research, I want the exploration.”
There were times during Kriseman’s prepared remarks that he appeared to be speaking directly to Sternberg. He reminded council members that the city’s stake in the Trop land is indefinite, while the team’s ends in seven years. But after 2027, the team loses its right to benefit from development revenue generated by the site.
“The clock is ticking, but not for us, for the Rays," Kriseman said. “Would you be willing, simply to make a point or because you’re mad at the city, to walk away from millions and millions of dollars that could be yours from development?”