As eight of St. Petersburg’s mayoral candidates sought to distinguish themselves from one another at a debate on Tuesday, there was one topic on which they all agreed.
None of the eight would commit to sticking with Mayor Rick Kriseman’s preferred plan to redevelop the city’s 86-acre Tropicana Field site, either with or without a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium.
Nearly a year after issuing the city’s initial request for proposals, Kriseman has narrowed his shortlist to two favored plans, and is expected to pick his favorite this summer. But no matter who succeeds him, his choice might not matter.
“This would be one of those things that we all agree about, that we shouldn’t go forward and let this lame-duck mayor make the final decision about something that’s going to affect us for generations to come,” said restaurateur Pete Boland.
“The new mayor should evaluate all options, not just what they’ve been given by the previous mayor,” said University of South Florida student Michael Ingram.
“We need to start back over,” said City Council member Robert Blackmon, “because we’re wasting time, emotions and money on a project that’ll never come to fruition in its current state.”
The responses align with the headwinds Kriseman has faced as he’s tried to shepherd a proposal into place. He’s picked two finalist teams, Miami’s Midtown Development and Sugar Hill Community Partners, led by San Francisco’s JMA Ventures. But the City Council has said it won’t approve funding for Kriseman’s choice until the Rays say more about their proposed plan to split upcoming seasons between St. Petersburg and Montreal — and perhaps not even then.
“It’s really not fair to the developers, many of whom came up with some great ideas and great plans, but we simply need to hear from the Rays now going forward,” said Darden Rice, the other City Council member running for mayor.
Small business owner Marcile Powers said she would support a public vote on a stadium plan. Candidate Torry Nelson said he’d prefer to “start fresh,” and former City Council member and state Rep. Wengay Newton said he’d “start over ... to make sure that there’s no ill will, there’s no backdoor deals that have been done” with the Rays.
While no candidate outright supported the current mayor’s plan to pick a proposal, former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch did say Kriseman’s “foundational work” should be taken into consideration by a new mayor.
“I don’t think that is lost work,” Welch said.
The developers who have made it this far likely would prefer not to start from scratch.
David Carlock, Sugar Hill’s development manager, said in an interview the day before the mayoral debate that St. Petersburg’s process has been “very, very thorough and thoughtful.”
Carlock also said that before his team submitted its plan, he spoke with public officials who expressed concerns that the proposals could be lackluster.
“If you’re worried about getting good responses, the best way to not get good responses is to throw thousands of hours of work out from seven development teams ... and say, ‘Guess what? We’re starting over,’” he said. “The message that you send to the development community is, ‘This is going to be super painful and there’s a good chance nothing is going to come out of it.’”
Whomever is elected, though, the Sugar Hill team emphasized they would abide by their decisions.
“We’re putting our best foot forward,” Todd Chapman, the CEO of JMA Ventures, said. “At the end of the day, it’s not our call.”
Midtown representative Dean Warhaft said in a statement that his team will continue taking “an inclusive approach” to the project.
“Midtown Development understands and realizes the development process will span multiple councils, mayors and generations,” Warhaft stated. “Our intention is to come in as a quality development partner to the entire city. As the developer, we will need to work hand-in-hand with everyone in the ecosystem of this multi-generational project.”
Kriseman’s spokesman Ben Kirby said the next mayor would inevitably build on the efforts of the current administration.
“Every candidate for mayor wants the opportunity to make as many decisions as possible on their watch,” Kirby said in a statement. “In this case, however, the road to redeveloping the Trop site began about six years ago and it’s important that we maintain this momentum. This is a generational project that many mayors will guide, beginning with Mayor Kriseman.”
In response to other Tropicana Field and Rays questions, the candidates had varying answers. All agreed that St. Petersburg can support a Major League Baseball team. Some sounded more open than others to splitting a season with Montreal, and especially what that might mean for any public funding of a new stadium. Every candidate said they’d need more information from the Rays before approving any plan.
Through a spokesperson, the team declined to comment on Tuesday’s mayoral debate.