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As Kriseman shuts down Rays talks, St. Petersburg leaders want new dialogue

At a news conference outside Tropicana Field on Tuesday, several City Council members, business leaders and a county commissioner distanced themselves from Kriseman’s comments last week.
St. Petersburg City Council Chair Ed Montanari delivers remarks in support of continuing to work with the Rays to keep Major League Baseball in the city, during a press conference at Tropicana Field on Tuesday.
St. Petersburg City Council Chair Ed Montanari delivers remarks in support of continuing to work with the Rays to keep Major League Baseball in the city, during a press conference at Tropicana Field on Tuesday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jun. 1
Updated Jun. 1

ST. PETERSBURG — City Council Chair Ed Montanari sought to place a cast over a fractured relationship between the city and the Tampa Bay Rays during a news conference outside Tropicana Field on Tuesday, assuring the team and the public that there is still a desire to negotiate over a stadium deal despite what Mayor Rick Kriseman has said.

In front of a group that included other City Council members, a county commissioner and key business leaders, Montanari said Kriseman wasn’t speaking for them last week when he said he can’t currently negotiate a stadium deal because of a pending lawsuit against the team’s majority owner Stu Sternberg. They all said they want to renew negotiations with the team to secure its long-term future in St. Petersburg.

“The city administration’s comments last week do not reflect my position on the future of the Rays or my willingness to engage with them,” Montanari said Tuesday.

After the news conference, Kriseman, who didn’t attend the event but whose spokesman did, released a statement saying Montanari and those who attended “are unfortunately elevating Stu Sternberg’s agenda at the expense of our residents, our progress on the Tropicana field site, and the City of St. Petersburg’s negotiating position.”

The news conference, with Rays leadership in the audience, represents the latest grappling in a prolonged and tangled standstill. The Rays future is now closely intertwined with the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site and there’s no clear path forward. All parties have said they want something from the situation another group has already declared a non-starter.

The latest chapter in what has been a 13-year stadium drama began May 22, when a group of minority owners filed suit against Sternberg alleging financial misconduct. When news of the suit broke, Kriseman called on Sternberg to “consider relinquishing control” of the team and on May 26 said he “can’t negotiate” with the owner because the suit calls for Sternberg to be removed.

Related: Tampa Bay Rays minority owners sue Sternberg, say he secretly negotiated Montreal deal

Kriseman said on Tuesday that before the suit was filed he had planned to begin new talks with the team. Now, Kriseman said, a contract with a sports consultant that was going to aid in the negotiations is on hold.

In the meantime, Kriseman last week selected two finalists for the redevelopment of Tropicana Field, making the case that the Trop project can move forward while negotiations continue with the team. But the City Council in April unanimously approved a resolution declaring it will not entertain an agreement with Kriseman’s chosen developer until there is clarity on whether the Rays wish to build a new stadium on the Trop site.

That’s the state of play: Montanari and other local leaders want renewed stadium talks, but Kriseman, who has historically been the city’s lead negotiator with the Rays, said he won’t reengage with the team unless Sternberg steps down, and there is no indication Sternberg plans to do that. At the same time, Kriseman is pushing forward on Trop redevelopment, a process the council has sought to stop until the stadium question has been resolved.

Related: St. Petersburg business leaders urge Kriseman to keep working with Rays

And Pinellas County Commission Chair Dave Eggers on Tuesday called on the team to negotiate “exclusively” with St. Petersburg “from scratch,” with a full season back on the table. But Sternberg has said repeatedly it’s “highly unlikely” the team would remain in the Tampa Bay area full-time once its Trop lease expires after the 2027 season, instead preferring his split-season idea to share home games with Montreal. Last week, the Tampa Bay Times reported that team executives are again talking with Hillsborough County officials about a stadium location in Ybor City, and have floated Nashville as another possible location.

Montanari downplayed the significance of the latest talk of moving the stadium to Tampa, and said those conversations were part of “routine updates” between the team and officials across the bay. But the news conference signaled tangible fears that the team could move, with speakers emphasizing how important the team is not just to the local economy, but also the residents, including the Black community.

“I am trying to get more African-Americans involved in baseball, and I think I can make that happen,” said Trevor Mallory, a former professional baseball player and local political candidate who chartered the Gulfport Little League. “The only way that happens is if I have someone behind me like the Tampa Bay Rays that we can fall on to use as an example to let these kids know that they can be something positive.”

The Rays did not address the substance of Eggers’ comment regarding full-season play, releasing a statement from president Brian Auld: “We appreciate Chairman Montanari’s and Chairman Eggers’ support for Rays baseball. We are eager to work with all willing partners to make the Sister City plan successful and to keep Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay for generations.”

So who will break?

Speaking to reporters later Tuesday at ceremony celebrating the beginning of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, Kriseman indicated it could be Council members. He said not all eight attended Montanari’s event and that community pressure to get the Trop project moving could compel some members of the Council to soften their stance.

One thing Montanari and Kriseman agreed on is that a deal can be struck with the Rays while Kriseman remains in office. His term ends in January.

“I would like it to get done during my time,” Kriseman said. “But if it doesn’t happen, it’s beyond my control, in this case. We’ll be watching to see what happens.”