In Tropicana Field debate, St. Petersburg City Council asks: Where are the Rays?

Frustration over the team’s silence on the redevelopment project came to a head on Thursday.
St. Petersburg City Council members hold a meeting on March 25 to address the redevelopment effort at Tropicana Field and the negotiations with the Tampa Bay Rays.
St. Petersburg City Council members hold a meeting on March 25 to address the redevelopment effort at Tropicana Field and the negotiations with the Tampa Bay Rays. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published March 25, 2021|Updated March 26, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — It’s time for the Rays to take a stand on their own stadium.

So said St. Petersburg’s City Council on Thursday, during a meeting over the city’s plans for the 86-acre Tropicana Field site. At the end of a meeting tinged with frustration over Mayor Rick Kriseman’s process for selecting a redevelopment proposal, council members agreed it would be difficult to move forward without hearing directly from the team.

“We need to have an understanding of what they want to do,” said Council Chair Ed Montanari. “I want the Rays to stay in St. Petersburg. I’m not a big fan of the split-season plan, but I want to talk to them, I want to hear from them, and I want to get more details of the plans that they have. It just seems logical to me of where we are right now that that is the next logical step.”

City Council member Gina Driscoll went one step further, saying unless the city can say for sure whether the Rays plan to build a new stadium on the Trop site, she would vote against any development agreement brought forth by the administration.

“If this became before me today, I would vote no and no and no and no, until the Rays are on board or off,” she said.

Related: Romano column: It's the Rays 1, Mayor 0

What started off as a classroom session on the history of Tropicana Field ownership and the Rays’ lease of the facility turned into a somewhat contentious meeting when council members began debating the timeline and the body’s role in the selection process. Right now, Kriseman’s administration is considering four shortlisted development proposals. The city will launch a public comment phase next month before the mayor makes his final selection in May.

Several council members lamented the pace of the selection process, echoing concerns they raised in January that it feels rushed, especially in the midst of considerable uncertainty: the Rays’ fate remains up the air as they continue to explore a sister-city concept that would allow them to play half their home games at new stadiums in the Tampa Bay area and Montreal; the city is in the midst of a mayoral and council election; and a dispute over old train tracks adjacent to the Trop property remains unresolved.

Council members also learned that a firm hired by the city this week began scanning two parking lots west of Tropicana Field for evidence of gravesites that historians believe may have existed there as early as 1900. That process should take about two weeks, as archaeologists work around a COVID-19 testing site.

“There is a big delta between where we’re at now at the end of March and where we’re supposed to be in May for getting decisions together,” said Council member Robert Blackmon. “I am very uncomfortable talking about any of this without the Rays’ input.”

The Rays declined to comment.

Thursday’s discussion was representative of an ongoing power struggle between Kriseman, who has thus far exerted total control over the Trop redevelopment project, and City Council, which has looked for ways to inject its voice.

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The meeting was a follow up to a January showdown, when Kriseman asked the Council to approve a nominal expenditure so city officials could hire a consultant to help them sort through the seven qualifying Trop redevelopment proposals the city received a week earlier. Council members balked at the request, instead resolving to hold Thursday’s meeting.

Kriseman ended up pulling the request, and city development officials narrowed the list to four finalists on their own. On Thursday, administration officials said they will bring forward to Council another request to hire a consultant to help winnow down the shortlist.

Related: Watch: Tropicana Field development bidders share video visions of St. Petersburg

But there’s a fifth proposal that isn’t being considered, one submitted by the Rays that Kriseman rejected out of hand in January at a news conference in front of Tropicana Field. Neither the Rays nor the city has publicly released the team’s complete site proposal. It’s not clear which officials have seen it, either.

“I was told that it was actually asked that council not be briefed on that proposal,” said Council member Brandi Gabbard, who advocated that the public be allowed to weigh in.

Kriseman, who was not initially in chambers for the meeting and was not scheduled to speak, told Council members he rejected the proposal because the Rays didn’t follow the city’s prescribed proposal process; accepting it would mean nullifying the others that had properly come forward and starting the process from scratch.

He also said the Rays were asking too much for a team hoping to play half its season in another city. The team proposed controlling 25 acres, with the right to collect 100 percent of development proceeds on that land, as well as the right to 50 percent of development proceeds on a 36-acre parcel west of Booker Creek.

Blackmon thought the idea had merit, and wanted to give the team consideration as a current and longtime city partner.

Kriseman disagreed: ”To me, what they were asking for was a better deal than they have right now.”

Council member Darden Rice raised concerns about the tenor of the relationship between the city and the Rays, especially as Kriseman’s term winds down and a new administration takes over in January. A leading mayoral candidate this cycle, she said she wanted to “give the Rays the benefit of the doubt” about their plan to explore a split season between St. Petersburg and Montreal — an idea Kriseman called “a bit silly” when the team first introduced it in 2019.

“It would be my preference to let them make their case about it to the public,” Rice said. “The public will let us know soon enough whether they like the idea or not. So I wouldn’t want to poison the atmosphere of letting them making their case to the public for what their needs are and how they could make it work.”

Rice sought to avoid souring city leadership’s relationship with the team, which she likened to “a standoff between two people with very rusty guns and one bullet.” She expressed discomfort with Kriseman picking a plan during his final months in office, committing his successor to a proposal long after he’s gone.

“It appears to me that the administration has a bellicose stance expressed in the media towards the Rays,” Rice said. “The next mayor, whoever that is, may not have that same kind of stance. It just seems like an odd way to make the handoff.”

”I respect your perception. That’s not the case at all,” replied Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, adding the project will span decades and multiple mayoral administrations.

Related: Did a developer imply the local NAACP backed its Tropicana Field plan?

Council member Amy Foster sounded exasperated by the council’s lack of meaningful debate on the proposals, complaining to Montanari that Thursday’s agenda was too heavy on background and incremental updates, rather than discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the four shortlisted plans.

“City Council, in my opinion, has been left behind and needs to get caught up,” Montanari said. “City Council needs to keep up with the process that the administration’s pushing forward.”

Foster said the council wasn’t helping its own case in that regard.

“I feel like we’re unnecessarily slowing down the process,” she said. “If we are going to have something come before us from the administration as early as May, I think we have to tighten up what the agenda is. We don’t have time to do the re-schooling and rehashing of things that have already been decided. It’s too late in the process for that.”