Mayor Ken Welch’s announced pick to redevelop Tropicana Field came with fanfare, including a high school marching band blasting Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to be Real.”
Three months later: not one note. Just quiet, private meetings between city officials, the Tampa Bay Rays and the team’s development partner, Hines. All with the hope of breaking through the 15-year stalemate in negotiations on building a new ballpark, and rebuilding on the 86 acres it sits upon.
That’s by design. All parties are talking and meeting regularly, according to interviews and public calendars. But negotiators and the consultants and lawyers they’re working with have avoided putting anything in writing or sharing visuals such as charts, graphs and renderings to avoid making them public records.
“Is a legal document not attorney client privileged?” wrote Inner Circle Sports consultant David Abrams to St. Petersburg City Administrator Rob Gerdes on Feb. 6. “One method of keeping this out of the public domain until we are done is having external counsel work on it and making it privileged.”
That email, along with typed texts and screenshots of texts that coordinate phone calls and Zoom meetings, are all that come up in public records requests for correspondence between city officials, their consultant and the Rays’ front office dating back to February.
That follows Welch’s pattern of keeping information relating to the project under wraps, including his pick for the redevelopment group. Written drafts of that Jan. 30 announcement obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show that Welch’s typed speech had “NAME THE GROUP” as a placeholder. “Hines-Rays” is written in marker above it.
St. Petersburg city officials have denied multiple requests for interviews, though the project is proposed on publicly owned land and likely will require taxpayer support.
“It would be most prudent to share those specifics and answer questions once negotiations have concluded and an agreement is crafted for the St. Petersburg City Council to review,” said spokesperson Erica Riggins in an email.
It is not clear if those specifics will be disclosed when a term sheet outlining plans for a new stadium is crafted this summer, possibly as soon as May, or a development agreement concerning the rest of the 86 acres is ready. That may not happen until the end of the year or in 2024. Negotiations for a term sheet are happening simultaneously with discussions about the larger redevelopment.
A combination of city officials, including Gerdes, the point of contact for ballpark negotiations, Assistant City Administrator Tom Greene, Chief of Staff Doyle Walsh and City Development Administrator James Corbett have met individually with City Council members to give updates on stadium negotiations. By meeting individually for briefings, the city avoids triggering Sunshine Law requirements that discussions occur in public.
“They asked us not to share the conversations,” said City Council member Lisset Hanewicz. “I’m trying to at least respect the process and make sure that we’re engaged. I don’t want there to be a scenario where we’re not engaged because of stuff that’s coming up in the news and then it causes issues with negotiations.”
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City Council member Gina Driscoll agreed that it was best to keep the discussions between the negotiating parties for now.
“I do feel really confident that this is truly putting our city’s best interests first as they work on this,” she said. “I think the details of the negotiations on something that’s this big, if someone doesn’t know the whole story, they might arrive at a conclusion that is simply not accurate.”
“With a deal this complicated, you can’t really disclose one piece of it because that’s not the whole story.”
Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg’s season-opening comments about expecting a deal to be done by the end of the year, or “there’s not a deal to be done, basically,” haven’t seemed to rattle anyone at the city.
“The only thing I can say is from what I’ve been told from the Rays and the administration is that talks are going well,” Driscoll said.
News may not be far away. Pinellas County Commissioner Brian Scott said he spoke to Rays president Brian Auld on Wednesday and said the Rays have been “making the rounds this week with all of the commissioners.”
“Based on that, I think we’re getting pretty close to an announcement or something moving ahead,” he said.
Scott said he and Auld “didn’t talk numbers,” and though he’s been briefed on negotiations by County Administrator Barry Burton, he didn’t want to reveal details until Burton and the Rays are ready to go public.
That the Rays and public officials have kept talks behind the scenes didn’t concern Scott, who was elected to political office for the first time in November. And he was confident, he said, that whenever the news comes out, it’ll be good news for those who want to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg for the coming decades.
Still, he said, he was eager to get a deal done and move on.
“This conversation’s been going on for, what, at least 15 years now,” he said. “Let’s put it to bed.”