St. Petersburg hires legal team, drafts term agreements for new Rays ballpark

The city is spending $250,000 on lawyers and plans for a 30-year agreement with the Rays.
An artist rendering of the Tampa Bay Rays proposed stadium design for the Tropicana Field site on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023 in St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Gensler
An artist rendering of the Tampa Bay Rays proposed stadium design for the Tropicana Field site on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023 in St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Gensler [ Courtesy of Gensler ]
Published Feb. 20|Updated Feb. 20

ST. PETERSBURG — The city of St. Petersburg is looking to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons for inspiration in trying to negotiate an accord with global real estate developer Hines and the Tampa Bay Rays to build a new ballpark and redevelop the 86 acres where Tropicana Field sits.

The city’s new legal team, meanwhile, brings the experience of helping to build a home for the NHL’s Seattle Kraken.

Tapping other cities’ experience in working with professional sports teams is one of the early trends in the three weeks since Mayor Ken Welch picked Hines and the Rays as St. Petersburg’s redevelopment partners.

The city has drafted a term sheet and retained the services of a law firm before negotiations go into full swing.

City Administrator Rob Gerdes is the point of contact for ongoing negotiations for the ballpark, which is funded separately from the rest of the redevelopment. He created four drafts of a term sheet in an attempt to not only strike a deal with the Rays but commit the team to staying in St. Petersburg for an initial term of 30 years.

The drafts are a patchwork from agreements between the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the Atlanta Falcons regarding the Mercedes Benz Stadium as well as other sports agreements, including the Atlanta Braves, the Miami Marlins and the NBA’s Orlando Magic. The latest 39-page version includes a nonrelocation agreement, defined as “a contractual, long-term commitment from the Rays to play baseball in the stadium facility,” along with rights and remedies in the event of a breach.

The draft term sheet outlines financial contributions from the city, county and Rays, but the dollar amounts are left blank.

A city spokesperson declined a Tampa Bay Times request for an interview with Gerdes. She said the city has taken no action on the draft term sheet beyond an internal discussion.

“Our city teams are continuing the negotiations with the Tampa Bay Rays to create and finalize a term sheet,” said spokesperson Erica Riggins. “We look forward to continuing to move the process forward revolving around our Historic Gas Plant District redevelopment project and our relationship with the Rays.”

The City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a $250,000 contract to retain a Minneapolis-based law firm, Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, for the redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant District and a Major League Baseball stadium. Four attorneys will represent only the city on sports, real estate and construction matters.

The firm’s attorney, Jim Leonard, introduced himself to the City Council as the appellate head of the firm’s sports and entertainment practice, focusing on the transactional side of sports and representing both sports teams and cities and sports governing bodies.

Leonard said he served as outside counsel to a Major League Baseball team for the past three years and worked on the spring training facility for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies. Recently, he said, his team worked with the city of Seattle on the Climate Pledge Arena, home to the NHL hockey team, the Seattle Kraken. Leonard said that project is similar to the Tropicana Field redevelopment: decommissioning an existing facility, building a new one and integrating it into a historic neighborhood downtown.

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Leonard said his team “can help the city attorney and the city out to get the best deal possible for what they think is a generational project for the city.”

Council member Richie Floyd asked the city’s legal team what the expectation is for retaining counsel. City attorney Jackie Kovilaritch said the firm will work on both the ballpark and the redevelopment, beyond putting together a term sheet.

Council member Lisset Hanewicz, a former federal prosecutor, noted that Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath is giving a discounted rate and not charging for travel time or travel-related expenses.

“We are getting, I believe, a good value for the services,” she said.