The Rays, the mayor and Montreal: St. Petersburg’s stadium drama, explained

The team and city leaders can’t seem to agree on anything. How did we get here?
From left: St. Petersburg City Council Chairperson Ed Montanari, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman have been locked in disagreement over the Rays future in the city and the fate of the Tropicana Field site.
From left: St. Petersburg City Council Chairperson Ed Montanari, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman have been locked in disagreement over the Rays future in the city and the fate of the Tropicana Field site. [ Times files ]
Published June 4, 2021|Updated June 4, 2021

It’s less than a dozen blocks from Tropicana Field from St. Petersburg’s City Hall.

But there are days, especially lately, when they’ve never seemed farther apart.

For a decade and a half, the topic of What’s To Be Done With The Trop has dominated St. Pete politics, as the Tampa Bay Rays have sought options for a new stadium. The team says baseball can’t survive here without a replacement for the 31-year-old dome. City leaders want to keep the team in St. Pete, but have yet to work out how — especially as they envision a redeveloped Trop site, an 86-acre tract in the heart of a dense and growing city.

Even if you’ve followed the Rays stadium saga for years, you have to admit things have gone off the rails in 2021. Proposals and counter-proposals, bickering and stonewalling, talk of a move to Montreal or Nashville. Hardly a day goes by without some new twist in the three-way standoff between Mayor Rick Kriseman, the St. Petersburg City Council and the team with the best record in Major League Baseball.

For outsiders and newcomers, diving into the plot mid-fray must be daunting. So for the sake of clarity, we thought we’d step back and figure out where we are, how we got here, and what might come next.

Let’s take some questions.

So what exactly is going on with the Rays and St. Petersburg?

Where do you want to start?

As far back as you like.

In the ‘70s, St. Petersburg civic leaders started trying to lure a major league team. To boost its chances, the city spent public money on what was originally called the Florida Suncoast Dome. Shortly after the city was awarded the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1995, it granted the franchise a 30-year lease on the dome, running through the 2027 season. That deal also prevented the team from negotiating a move to another city without the city’s approval.

So a new stadium would have to be built in St. Petersburg?

Originally, yes. In 2007, the team proposed a waterfront ballpark on the site of Al Lang Stadium; over the next decade, more than a dozen other potential Pinellas County sites would be identified. None panned out. Finally, in an effort to help keep the Rays in the region, Kriseman and the City Council granted the team permission to look at stadium sites in Hillsborough County, marking the first and only time detailed talks with any other city could officially commence. That happened in 2016. Remember that date.

What happened in Hillsborough?

The Rays, elected officials and local business leaders spent three years hammering out plans for a ballpark in Tampa. They identified Ybor City as the most likely location, and even drew plans for an $892 million stadium. But in late 2018, the team declared that project dead. (For the time being, at least.)

When did Montreal enter the picture?

The team confirmed in 2019 that it had explored splitting its season between Tampa Bay and Montreal, with Major League Baseball — but not yet the city of St. Petersburggranting its blessing. Owner Stuart Sternberg has said private discussions with Montreal partners began in 2017, but ... well, let’s come back to that.

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Can’t the city and Rays tear down Tropicana Field and rebuild there?

Of course. The issue is how they do it. Tracts of downtown land like the Trop site don’t come along often, so the city wants to make sure it’s redeveloped the right way, with more taken into consideration than just baseball. In 2016, the city hired a firm to develop a conceptual master plan for the site, both with and without a stadium. Four years later, Kriseman issued an official request for developers to submit proposals on what the site could become. That 31-page document asked developers to incorporate a wide range of issues, from parks to hotels to affordable housing to a research campus to the site’s sensitive history as a long-paved-over Black neighborhood.

How many proposals did the city get?

At least nine. Two were tossed because they didn’t meet requested criteria. Another three were cut a few weeks later. In late May, Kriseman narrowed the shortlist to two.

What are those two?

One is from Miami’s Midtown Development, which proposed a plan costing up to $3.8 billion, including $75 million in tax increment funding. Another is from Sugar Hill Community Partners, led by San Francisco’s JMA Ventures, that would cost up to $3.1 billion, with $837 million in public funding. Both plans call for expanded park space around Booker Creek, millions of square feet of office and retail space, and large hotels and conference centers.

Related: How St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field plans stack up on parks, housing, history

Wait a second. If the city and team are locked into a lease until 2027, and we don’t even know where the Rays will play in 2028, why are we talking about redevelopment proposals in 2021?

For one thing, building a new stadium will take several years. And Kriseman believes Trop site development can get underway even without a stadium plan in stone.

For the mayor, there’s another ticking clock. His mayoral term will end in early 2022, well before any of this is settled. He wants to pick a favored proposal in the final months of his administration, with the next mayor tasked with seeing it through. Kriseman has said there’s no reason to wait, and he aims to keep working until the day he leaves office, but this could also be a move to burnish his legacy by putting his stamp on one last huge city project.

Related: Romano: Rays stadium saga in a nutshell? Next mayor up!

Can he do that?

Not unilaterally. He can make a recommendation and negotiate a development deal, but the City Council controls the budget, and therefore must approve it.

Will the Council do that?

Doesn’t look like it. All this year, the mayor and City Council have gone back and forth over who has the power to do what, and when. They’ve sparred over Kriseman’s request to hire a consultant to help him pick a redevelopment proposal. They’ve sparred over whether the Rays shouldand maybe did — lay out a valid proposal of their own. And they’ve sparred over whether Kriseman really should be the one to pick a proposal on behalf of St. Petersburg, instead of the next mayor.

And that next mayor would be…?

Potentially Darden Rice or Robert Blackmon, who both serve — you guessed it — on the City Council. They’ve said the next mayor shouldn’t be saddled with a plan picked by their predecessor, as have fellow candidates Ken Welch and Wengay Newton. The Council has resolved not to vote on Kriseman’s pick until the Rays say more about what they’re going to do.

So what ARE the Rays going to do?

It’s unsettled. The team wants to play half its season in a new, local, open-air stadium, but must first negotiate with the city on terms. The team has floated its own Trop site proposal to the mayor and City Council members behind closed doors, but did not officially submit it for consideration. The plan wasn’t to Kriseman’s liking. But the City Council said the public should hear more about it, as well as details of the team’s proposed split season with Montreal, before it would vote on any development agreement.

Oh yeah, Montreal! Remind me again when those talks started?

Last month, a handful of the Rays’ minority owners sued Sternberg, alleging that he had been quietly squeezing out limited partners for years, and that he had secretly begun talking to Montreal investors as far back as 2014, years earlier than previously disclosed. (The team called the lawsuit “fraught with error and falsehood.”) Remember how the city was steadfastly against the team exploring any site outside Pinellas County — much less one in Canada — until 2016? Well, 2014 is before 2016.

Does that mean the Rays violated their contract with the city?

The team says it doesn’t. Kriseman thinks it might. This debate actually goes back several years. When the Montreal talks were revealed in 2019, Kriseman’s administration determined they likely weren’t detailed enough to count as a violation, and talks at any level wouldn’t be prohibited so long as the target moving date was after the Trop lease expires. (The lawsuit’s allegation that Sternberg may have legally shifted ownership of the team could pose a separate problem, but it’s unclear what effect that could have on stadium talks.)

How happy is Kriseman about the new lawsuit?

Not very! After it was filed, the mayor called his relationship with Sternberg “untenable.” Kriseman said the owner should “consider relinquishing control” of the Rays, and said he could no longer negotiate with Sternberg in good faith. The city has “no intention right now of filing anything” in court against the team, Kriseman said this week, but his legal team is seeking clarity on any use agreement violations as the suit against Sternberg plays out.

So if the mayor won’t talk to the team, and the City Council won’t back the mayor, and the team isn’t saying much of anything … where does that leave everyone?

For now, off on their own. Kriseman will pick his preferred redevelopment proposal as early as this month. The City Council could table the issue until after November’s election. The Rays still want to play half their season in Montreal, potentially as early as 2027, but are exploring all options for the other half, including a second look at Ybor City, and, according to one Hillsborough official, even a possible move to Nashville. (The Rays have said they’re not looking at other cities.)

When will all this end?

Sometime before 2027? Seriously, though, all parties do seem to want the same thing: a new ballpark surrounded by acres of fresh downtown development. Even after a new mayor is sworn in, the city and team will still have five years to plan for 2028. This week, both Kriseman and City Council chairperson Ed Montanari expressed optimism that they can reach some sort of deal much sooner, potentially by the time Kriseman leaves office in January.

Will that actually happen?

Well, it would be an historic breakthrough, as we’ve now been at this for a quarter century. But if the past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that when it comes to the Rays and St. Petersburg, nothing is ever off the table.

Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.