St. Petersburg mayor and City Council spar over Tropicana Field project

The particular item before Council was narrow in scope, but it sparked a broad and heated conversation.
An issue related to the Tropicana Field redevelopment sparked a bitter conversation Thursday between City Council and the mayor.
An issue related to the Tropicana Field redevelopment sparked a bitter conversation Thursday between City Council and the mayor.
Published Jan. 22, 2021|Updated Jan. 22, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — The item on Thursday’s City Council agenda didn’t appear to be controversial.

Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration sought to hire a consultant to help it weed through eight proposals it received last week for the massive Tropicana Field redevelopment project. The consultant, HR&A Advisors, was to help the city weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the proposals and negotiate with the winning developer.

HR&A was charging $180,000, a nominal amount for a city with a $300 million operating budget, to be the city’s “owner’s representative” through the selection process, which the city estimated would take 12 months — right up to the end of Kriseman’s term.

Related: Eight developers submit visions to St. Petersburg for Tropicana Field project

But the City Council, which controls the city’s purse strings, was taken off guard by the request and used it as an opportunity to assert itself into the Trop project, which has thus far been run by the administration. Several council members had previously said the process felt rushed. It sought to table the decision until after they had a chance to discuss it further at a committee meeting.

Kriseman, compelled to move forward, didn’t want to wait. After a heated discussion between City Council and senior administration officials that included accusations of threatening behavior and a knock on someone’s emotional intelligence, the mayor withdrew the item from council consideration, saying city development officials would conduct the review on their own.

The showdown — over influence and power over a project that could transform St. Petersburg — has, in some ways, been building for months between the city’s legislative and executive branches. City Council members have long expressed frustration over the pace of the Trop project amid considerable uncertainty: Most notably, the future of the Trop’s main tenant, the Tampa Bay Rays, remains unclear in St. Petersburg, and Kriseman is in his eighth and final year in office. Yet Kriseman has insisted on advancing the project, and picking a vision for the 86-acre site could be one of the last significant acts he undertakes as mayor.

Council Chair Ed Montanari referenced the uncertainty when he spoke first after a brief presentation from city development officials Thursday afternoon. He said he wants a report on how revenue sharing for the Trop site would work, as the Rays are entitled to half of the development rights, and what roadblocks to development the Rays could throw up. He also noted that an issue with rail lines that run along to the Trop site remains unresolved and that transportation officials are considering altering Interstate 175 — both of which could change the physical shape of the project.

“I’m not ready to move forward on this issue today,” he said, proposing that City Council draft criteria for picking a developer, which would have to be taken into consideration by HR&A when weighing proposals.

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He sought to have a more in-depth discussion in a committee meeting, perhaps in February.

Other Council members concurred. Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she supported hiring outside experts. But she lamented that the city’s Black community, members of which were displaced in the 1970s and 80s to make way for the baseball stadium in exchange for unkept promises of economic prosperity to follow, had no input into who the consultant would be. She was concerned about the diversity of those who would be picking the site’s future.

“I don’t want that community to be informed, I want them involved,” she said. “This is a huge monumental decision that we’re about to make moving forward. And I don’t want the next generation to continue to suffer like the last generation did from a lot of the broken promises.”

Robert Blackmon asked how Council members could pick a company to evaluate the bids when they haven’t even seen the proposals themselves — the proposals are still being reviewed by city officials and have not been released to council members or the public. He equated it to “buying a house without seeing the inspection reports.” He said he felt uncomfortable moving any further without the Rays at the table, adding that “it feels like we’re rushing it.”

“It just kind of shows contempt for what should be our partners,” he said. “I’m not pleased today with this at all.”

Brandi Gabbard said the hiring of HR&A felt “shoved down our throats.” Since council members weren’t involved in the process, she doesn’t know if HR&A, which has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Dallas and Raleigh, N.C., is even the right choice.

“There’s such little input from us at this point that I don’t feel like I could approve this today,” she said.

Kriseman, who wasn’t initially in council chambers, came to a lectern to try to refocus the discussion, reminding council that what was before them was relatively small in scope: “You are giving us an expert.”

He said there has been and will continue to be ample opportunity for the community to provide input into the project beyond Thursday’s decision. His appeal did little to assuage the concerns of the council.

Amy Foster asked about the urgency. Alan DeLisle, the city’s development administrator, said the proposals have been received and he wants HR&A looking at them as soon as possible. He said he had no idea any of the council members had an issue with this because none raised concerns before the meeting. Foster said they should have been briefed during individual meetings so nobody felt they were out of the loop.

“You’ve dealt with us long enough to know that this was coming,” she said.

She went on to say that hiring an owner’s representative might seem like standard procedure for DeLisle, but every step is a big deal for the council considering the magnitude of the Trop project.

“It’s an emotional intelligence issue for folks to consider other people’s perspective,” she said.

DeLisle apologized. Then he said without council’s approval that day, the city would conduct its review process without the consultant, reiterating that HR&A would bring “tremendous added value for us and, I think, for you.”

Blackmon perceived that comment as a threat: “I didn’t appreciate that comment at all.” DeLisle said he was just stating fact.

After more back-and-forth, Kriseman stepped in and, in a reversal, declared he was pulling the item.

“We’ll just go forward with the process without this piece of information,” he said. “We just felt it would be a benefit.”

That decision dismayed Figgs-Sanders.

“What I complimented as being a gallant effort to ensure that we get it right by getting that outside opinion, seems to be taken away as quickly as it was presented,” she said.

She offered a compromise: she would reschedule a Jan. 28 workshop so the council could use that time to discuss the HR&A issue sooner than February. But by then, Kriseman had made up his mind, and left the room.

His assistant city administrator, Tom Greene, said, “We’re not interested in proceeding with this item at this moment.”