Rays decline to weigh in on four Tropicana Field redevelopment finalists, Kriseman says

The uncertainty around the team’s future is weighing on Mayor Rick Kriseman’s effort to select a developer for the parcel.
The Rays declined to offer their opinion on the four shortlisted proposals to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site.
The Rays declined to offer their opinion on the four shortlisted proposals to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published April 1, 2021|Updated April 1, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — At a City Council meeting last week, at least half the members said they were uncomfortable moving forward on the redevelopment of the 86-acre Tropicana Field site without input from the stadium’s main tenant, the Tampa Bay Rays.

In a letter sent to City Council on Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Rick Kriseman wrote that he offered the Rays a chance to weigh in on the proposals. They decided not to take a swing.

Related: How St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field pitches stack up on parks, homes, history

“As I indicated to you during that discussion, I reached out to the Rays offering them the opportunity to provide their insight, opinion and feedback regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the four finalists, along with their critique of the finalists’ visions for the site,” Kriseman wrote. “Please be advised that the Rays have informed me that they are declining to the opportunity to provide their thoughts and insights at this time.”

It’s the latest missed connection in a start-and-stop negotiating process between Kriseman and Rays leadership that has mostly played out behind closed doors since the team announced its sister-city concept in 2019 but has occasionally burst out into the open.

The uncertainty around the team’s future beyond the 2027 season — whether they will remain in St. Petersburg, as a full-time or part-time team, and where a new stadium would go after their lease of Tropicana Field expires — is weighing heavily on the Kriseman’s effort to select a master developer for the parcel by year’s end. Enough council members said they were uncomfortable moving forward with development plans without hearing from the Rays that they could jeopardize the mayor’s eventual pick.

The team opted not to partner with a developer when the city solicited bids for new Trop site visions last year. Instead, the team presented the mayor and individual council members with their own plan, which the mayor strongly dismissed in a news conference in front of the Trop — with Rays management in the audience — calling it untenable and saying it was submitted outside of the solicitation process. Conversations between the team and Kriseman have paused since then, the mayor said, while the city is in the final stages of hiring a consultant that specializes in professional sports negotiations.

Through a spokeswoman, the Rays declined to comment on why they refrained from offering their opinion on the four finalists. The team opened its regular season Thursday away against the Miami Marlins.

The Rays have close ties to at least one of the shortlisted developers: Portman Holdings and Portman Residential of Atlanta, who are partnered with St. Petersburg-based Third Lake Partners. Ken Jones, Third Lake’s CEO, was on the executive committee of the Rays 100, a team-supported group of civic leaders tapped to explore a move from St. Petersburg to Ybor City. The group also includes Carillon developer Darryl LeClair, who spent years lobbying the city to let the Rays explore a stadium site within his development. And a master planner of the project, HKS Architects, drew up master planning documents for the Trop site beginning in 2016.

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One of the architects working under finalist Midtown Development, Randy Morton of Pinstripe Design and Advisory Group, worked for HKS in 2016 and designed the master plan.

“I just think its a missed opportunity for them that might pass them by,” Kriseman said Thursday, noting that if the Rays choose to build a new stadium on the Trop site, their developer will have to work in concert with the city’s chosen developer on the rest of the parcel. “I’d like to have seen them take us up on it, but it’s ultimately always their choice.”

Kriseman said there’s no legal reason the city can’t move forward with selecting a developer without getting input from the Rays, and that the shortlisted developers have baked into their plans uncertainty around the team. He said whether the lack of input has an impact on City Council’s approval of his selection is “a decision that Council makes.”

Council member Robert Blackmon, who during last week’s meeting said holding a Tropicana Field discussion without the Rays present felt like “conducting a council meeting without a quorum” said Thursday he hopes further negotiations with the team about its future can take place in a public setting. He added that there is “a plan to publicly provide details in the near future.” He didn’t know if that conversation would focus on the Rays’ proposal for the Trop site or their opinions on the four shortlisted proposals.

Kriseman said there’s no plan to begin negotiating with the team in public.

“It’s really not realistic to expect that there’s going to be public negotiations of contracts,” he said. “I can’t think of any instance where a professional sports team and a city negotiated publicly the contract.”

He said if the Rays wanted their thoughts public, they could send them to his office on paper, rendering them a public record.