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With Rays’ fate uncertain, St. Petersburg City Council vies to halt Trop project

The move formally puts the City Council at odds with Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, right, and president Matt Silverman, left, presented to St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday, pitching a new stadium on the Trop site as part of their sister-city concept.
Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, right, and president Matt Silverman, left, presented to St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday, pitching a new stadium on the Trop site as part of their sister-city concept. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 15
Updated Apr. 16

ST. PETERSBURG — It’s high noon in St. Petersburg, and there’s a good ol’ fashioned showdown between Mayor Rick Kriseman and City Council over redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site.

The mayor has been pushing the process forward amid growing headwinds from City Council, and after creating a shortlist of proposals for the 86-acre site, he could make his final selection as soon as next month.

But the Council, which controls the city’s purse strings, would vote on any development deal Kriseman brings forth. And on Thursday, after hearing a presentation from Tampa Bay Rays executive leadership, members unanimously made clear they don’t support moving the process forward until after the Rays have decided their fate.

“City Council requests that City Administration not bring any agreement with a master developer for the Tropicana Field site before City Council for approval until the future of the Rays is determined,” the resolution read.

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

The resolution calls for Council to revisit the language by the end of the 2021 baseball season.

The vote puts to paper a deteriorating relationship between the mayor and the Council and a divergent vision for how the project should progress. It could also toss the entire Trop redevelopment project into uncertain and uncharted territory.

The unanimous decision telegraphs how Council members might vote should the mayor bring forth a development deal. Yet, Kriseman, who has sole authority to move forward with the process for now, said he plans to adhere to his timeline, which would have a development agreement finalized by December, the month before he leaves office.

“The opinion that has been expressed through a resolution today is exactly that, their opinion as of today,” the mayor said. “And two months from now, that could change.”

The mayor said he has voiced his opinion, and now have City Council and the Rays, but the community still needs to be heard, which could shift his and Council’s views.

“I think the prudent thing is to continue the process, and if we get to a point where we have to stop, we will,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re there yet. To me there are too many opportunities to move forward, and I don’t see the logic to stopping all activity with the Trop at this point in time.”

City development officials last summer solicited developers to submit their visions for the Trop site, directing them to draft two parallel plans: one that incorporated a new Rays stadium site. From the seven qualified proposals that were submitted by the Jan. 15 deadline, city officials created a shortlist of four proposals, which they are in the process of narrowing further.

Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg spoke to St. Petersburg City Council members on Thursday as team president Matt Silverman looked on.
Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg spoke to St. Petersburg City Council members on Thursday as team president Matt Silverman looked on. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Tensions have escalated between Council and Kriseman throughout the whittling process. In January, when Kriseman asked for $180,000 to hire a consultant, New York-based HR&A advisors, to help the city evaluate and rank the seven proposals, City Council seized the moment to express frustration about the pace of the project and the amount of input they’ve been allowed to contribute. Kriseman’s administration countered that the visioning process for the Trop began in 2016 and that council members’ wishes were incorporated into the proposal demands. In the end, Kriseman pulled the item from consideration, avoiding a no vote.

Then, last month, during a committee meeting about the Trop redevelopment, several council members voiced concern over picking a developer for the project without knowing whether the Rays plan to build a new stadium in St. Petersburg. They made clear they wanted to hear from Rays next.

That’s why, during its April 8 meeting, the Council voted to defer a scaled down HR&A contract until Thursday’s meeting, after the Rays’ presentation. In response, Kriseman on Wednesday announced that he had further reduced the value of the contract to $99,000, just under the $100,000 threshold that triggers Council approval, and executed it himself, a move that angered at least two council members who said it was a a clear attempt to circumvent their authority. (After the resolution vote Thursday night, Council Chair Ed Montanari said he would be putting an item on a future meeting agenda to lower the City Council threshold to $50,000.)

Related: Kriseman hires Trop project consultant without City Council approval

That was the context within which Rays’ principal owner Stu Sternberg and presidents Matt Silverman and Brian Auld made their relatively short presentation to City Council. They made a strong pitch to build a new, open-air, multi-use stadium on the Trop site as part of their sister-city concept, a plan they unveiled in 2019 that would have the team splitting home games between two new stadiums in the Tampa Bay area and Montreal.

“We are going to build an eco-friendly outdoor ballpark to host games during the most beautiful time of the year in Florida,” Auld said, noting a new facility and a connection to the Montreal market will drive development and tourism and have a greater impact than the team currently has. The stadium could host spring training games, Tampa Bay Rowdies games, graduations and bring sports tournaments of all kinds to the city.

“And of course, most importantly, we’re going to keep Major League Baseball right here in Tampa Bay where it belongs,” he said.

Related: St. Petersburg residents weigh in on finalist Trop proposals

They also made clear their belief that development on the Trop site cannot go forward before the city and the team come to an agreement over a new stadium there, or collectively decide to part ways.

“The surest path forward, the right pathway for development, is to answer the baseball question first,” Silverman said.

They did not, however, address a recent proposal they made to Kriseman — who summarily rejected the idea — by which the team would construct a new stadium in exchange for control over a portion of the Trop property.

After the presentation, Council members heaped praise on the reigning American League champions, referring to a list of partnerships the Rays have built within the community. All expressed their support for the team and their desire to keep it in St. Petersburg.

“I do know we have generations of kids coming before us who deserve to know that we did everything we could to keep baseball in St. Petersburg,” Council member Brandi Gabbard said.

Times staff writer Jay Cridlin contributed to this report.