St. Petersburg’s mayor names a developer for Tropicana Field today. Then what?

The City Council must sign off on a development agreement. That may not happen until 2024.
Former 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, Tuesday, June 1, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
Former 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, Tuesday, June 1, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 30

ST. PETERSBURG — Decision day has arrived.

Today, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch is expected to announce his pick for who gets to redevelop Tropicana Field and the 86 acres it sits upon. From the steps of City Hall, he will settle months of speculation as he gives his first State of the City address and outlines what’s ahead for St. Petersburg.

It’s the latest chapter in a 37-year battle by St. Petersburg to lure — and more recently, to keep — a Major League Baseball franchise.

But Welch has made clear it’s about so much more. It’s about finally doing right by the historically Black Gas Plant community razed to make way for a stadium. It’s about what will happen outside that stadium.

In tossing out the bids solicited by his predecessor shortly after taking office last year, Welch made clear he didn’t think the prior offers did enough. He said he wanted what comes next to offer a place for all to live, work and enjoy a city in renaissance, especially Black residents who have not all benefited from that rebirth.

The bids would be judged on 23 criteria that seek to ensure that outcome, from offering significant affordable housing to providing opportunities for minority businesses.

“I’m looking for the best long-term partnership to achieve the goals in the (bid),” Welch told a reporter Wednesday.

His solicitation drew four bidders. A staff review and outside consultants hired to judge which bids were most responsive to the mayor’s aims ranked two above the others.

They included the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team, which didn’t bid under prior Mayor Rick Kriseman. The team submitted an offer featuring deep-pocketed partners with experience building sports arenas. They offered the most money to the city and an aggressive timeline that would allow a new ballpark to come online by 2028.

The other responsive suitor, the review teams found, was Sugar Hill Community Partners, led by San Francisco-based JMA Ventures and former National Basketball Association star Kevin Johnson. Sugar Hill submitted a bid last time and finished as runner-up. The current bid promises half the housing it builds would be affordable and has spent the better part of two years wooing Black leaders, including Welch.

Two other bidders, Miami’s 50 Plus 1 Sports, committed to using minority-owned businesses, and Tampa-based Restoration Associates, backed by local physician and philanthropist Kiran Patel, are also aiming for a shot. The review teams, however, said they lacked the level of detail or proven financial wherewithal.

Welch’s announcement is just the beginning of a yearslong process that will include detailed negotiations, City Council votes and public input. It could mark the start of a transformative effort to remake a large swath of downtown and salve some of St. Petersburg’s most painful history.

The Rays first proposed building a new stadium to replace the Trop on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront 15 years ago. As the years since have shown, the latest effort could just be the latest effort.

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“Getting to Monday is the easy part,” said Brian Caper, the city’s economic and workforce director who is its point of contact for the bidders. “Then it’s the hard part to roll up our sleeves and start negotiations.”

What’s next?

Once Welch makes his announcement, the city enters into negotiations with the selected developer on a term sheet. Any promises the selected developer made in their proposal may not end up in the final plans.

A term sheet is a nonbinding document that does not require City Council approval and can change. In broad terms, it outlines the phasing of the project, land value, financial transaction and parking. It puts real numbers behind how many residential units, how much office space and how many hotel rooms are warranted on the site.

“It really is an idea to get everything on paper, get an understanding of where both sides are,” Caper said.

The city may bring on legal counsel and consultants to help with the process. There will be opportunities for community input, too.

According to the city’s timeline, a term sheet is expected to be completed with the preferred developer by May, with a development agreement presented to the City Council by October. But Caper said a development agreement may not be ready until 2024 — or longer.

The real power lies with the City Council, which controls the city’s purse strings. The council could veto a development agreement with Welch’s preferred developer, and that could start the process all over again.

“Now is the time for our mayor to make a decision,” said City Council chairperson Brandi Gabbard. “The individual votes that come after, we will take each of those as they come.”

What about the Rays?

Should Welch choose the Rays, which is partnering with a team that includes international real estate investment and development group Hines, the city would seek to secure a new use agreement with the Rays while putting together a term sheet. That agreement would concern the 17 acres carved out of the current request for proposals for a potential ballpark.

The current use agreement runs until the end of 2027. A new agreement would outline how much financial support would come from the city, county and private sector for a new baseball stadium. The Rays would be expected to commit to play there through a specified date.

The same goes if Welch chooses Sugar Hill to develop the bulk of the land and the Rays are still interested in playing baseball on the site, a less likely scenario.

The use agreement requires City Council approval. Once approved, the city and the team would move forward with a development agreement.

“We want to make sure that we’ve got our piece locked down before we start negotiating everything else,” Caper said. “The last thing we want is they have development agreement for 50-plus acres but they leave to Tampa.”

But should the Rays not get picked, or they decide to leave, the city may put those excluded 17 acres out for another bid request.

City Council’s final say

Next comes the development agreement: a legally binding document that must be approved by the City Council. It would spell out specific obligations, like how many affordable housing units will be available and at what price, how the project is going to be paid for and the terms of transaction for the land.

The redevelopment is subject to the city’s Community Benefit Program. Launched in 2021, the program requires projects that receive a certain amount of city funding or cost more than $10 million to reinvest in the community. Benefits could include building or funding new affordable or workforce housing, paying into a fund to improve local schools, renovating historic buildings or providing job training.

That’s what City Council member Richie Floyd is looking forward to. He pointed to how the plan for a Moffitt Cancer Center in St. Petersburg fell apart because Welch said it didn’t have enough affordable housing.

“Since I don’t choose who we’re negotiating with, I’m focusing on the negotiations,” he said.

If the City Council rejects the development agreement, the city is back to the drawing board. With time passed, the city may have to issue a third, new request for proposals — further drawing out the process and delaying the resolution.

City Council vice chairperson Deborah Figgs-Sanders hopes it doesn’t get that far. She said she’s aware of how much taxpayer money has already gone to the redevelopment effort without a shovel breaking ground.

“Promises don’t feed people,” she said. “We got to have proven success.”

St. Petersburg’s 2023 State of the City

Mayor Ken Welch will highlight his accomplishments from his first year in office, talk about what’s to come in 2023 and is expected to announce his preferred developer for the Historic Gas Plant District redevelopment.

WHEN: 11 a.m. today

WHERE: The steps of City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N.

HOW TO WATCH: The event is open to the public but will also be streamed via Facebook Live on the city’s Facebook page.