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Rick Kriseman calls out Tampa Bay Rays in final St. Pete address

St. Petersburg’s mayor delivered his final State of the City address on Friday, laying the foundation for his legacy.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, seen here before Tropicana Field last month, gave his final State of the City address on Friday.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, seen here before Tropicana Field last month, gave his final State of the City address on Friday. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]
Published Feb. 19
Updated Feb. 19

ST. PETERSBURG — In his final State of the City address on Friday, Mayor Rick Kriseman sharply called out Tampa Bay Rays leadership, blaming them for letting uncertainty about their future fester for more than a decade, going back to their failed bid to build a waterfront stadium in 2008.

“The Rays have spent more than half their existence trying to figure out where they’d like to play baseball for the long term,” the mayor said. “They’ve worked with three mayors in St. Pete, two in Tampa, and officials in Montreal, yet we are no closer to an answer regarding their future than we were 13 years ago.”

For the sake of the city, Kriseman urged the team to select a path.

“We love our Rays, but it’s time for them to pick a partner and get married.”

Kriseman aimed the brush back at the reigning American League champions in the middle of an otherwise optimistic speech in which the mayor characterized St. Petersburg as resilient and thriving despite the heavy toll the global pandemic has taken on residents and businesses.

The speech, Kriseman’s last before his term runs out next January, also laid the foundation for his legacy, specifically highlighting the opening of the St. Pete Pier last summer, the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site, equity and affordable housing initiatives, efforts to reduce poverty and the promotion of public art throughout the city.

Kriseman began by acknowledging the unusual circumstances of his speech, delivered live at an empty Palladium theater in front of a virtual audience that gathered to watch on Facebook. After thanking front line workers, city employees, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and the eight City Council members, Kriseman spoke of those who have died of COVID-19 and the ways in which the pandemic has altered our lives.

He then offered the city a pat on the back. City government remains on sure financial footing despite the tough year, he said. And the city’s economy, diversified beyond hospitality and tourism through a deliberate effort called Grow Smarter, has weathered the COVID-19 downturn.

Part of that, Kriseman said, was his administration’s quick effort — called the Fighting Chance Fund — to cut relief checks for small business owners and their employees when the state shut down last spring.

“The shock of COVID-19 and the stressors that have followed have not broken us, literally or figuratively,” he said. “We can be disrupted, but we can’t be deterred.”

He also touted his initiative, called Deuces Rising, to revitalize 22nd Street S, the city’s historic Black main street, and his “For All, From All” housing plan, which aims to create and maintain the city’s affordable housing stock. Last year the city partnered with Sankofa Vision Group to build affordable homes and commercial space along 22nd Street S on a parcel north of the interstate previously called Commerce Park.

The mayor also mentioned the pier, which opened last summer and almost immediately began collecting awards, and has become a gathering place for residents who wish to enjoy the waterfront while still being conscious of the pandemic. The pier is adorned with numerous public art installations, touching on the city’s strong and growing reputation as a haven for those who create and admire art.

He touched on clean energy initiatives and the city’s new long-term planning document, called St. Pete 2050. And he said the city’s poverty rate, especially in the Black community, has fallen during his tenure.

“Our vision, to be a city of opportunity where the sun shines on all, will remain our vision until everyone finds their place in the sun,” he said.

But the most striking moment of the speech came when Kriseman spoke of the Tropicana Field site and the Rays.

He defended his decision to push forward with picking a developer for the 86-acre parcel during his last year in office and amid the tremendous uncertainty surrounding the Rays’ future. Developers last month submitted dual-track proposals for the site, taking into account the possibilities that there may or may not ultimately be a baseball stadium there. Eventually, builders will need to know.

“The sooner the Tampa Bay Rays make their desires known, the better,” Kriseman said.

The Rays declined to comment.

It’s the second time in as many months the mayor has publicly dressed down Rays ownership. Last month, Kriseman held a news conference in front of the Trop to announce that the Rays had asked for too much money and control over the redeveloped Trop site in their bid to secure public financing for a new stadium, all while principal owner Stu Sternberg and presidents Brian Auld and Matt Silverman, who were not invited, watched from the crowd. During his Friday speech, Kriseman implored them to join him in negotiations that are “realistic in their expectations.”

On Thursday, it was revealed that St. Petersburg and Pinellas County officials are seeking a consultant with expertise in stadium financing and pro sports negotiations to help them overcome their impasse with the team.

After a quick nod to regionalism by thanking the mayors who served alongside him in Tampa and Clearwater, Kriseman indulged in a round of self congratulation before closing with a word of goodwill to his as yet unnamed his successor.

“I will depart knowing the State of our City is safer, stronger and sunnier than I found it, and that the next mayor will have the opportunity to make our city of sunshine and pelicans soar even higher,” he said.