What St. Petersburg, Pinellas elected leaders say about the Rays deal

Many of the city and county’s elected leaders said they are optimistic but want to know more about the deal’s financials and the team’s obligations.
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long shakes her fists in excitement at Tropicana Field Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 in St. Petersburg. The Rays announced an agreement for a new ballpark to be built in St. Petersburg.
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long shakes her fists in excitement at Tropicana Field Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 in St. Petersburg. The Rays announced an agreement for a new ballpark to be built in St. Petersburg. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Sept. 24

Tuesday’s fanfare was just the beginning.

The Tampa Bay Rays won’t be tied to staying in St. Petersburg and construction can’t start on a new ballpark until a legally binding development agreement is approved with votes from the St. Petersburg City Council and the Pinellas County Commission. That likely won’t happen until the beginning of 2024.

It will take five votes on the city’s eight-member council and four votes on the county’s seven-member commission to agree to a combined public subsidy of $600 million for the ballpark alone. And that may be the simple part, though it’s by no means easy.

The city — particularly Mayor Ken Welch — has taken a far more active role in negotiating what will be built on the land around a new stadium. That introduces a lot more ways for a deal to fall apart. Already, individual City Council members are staking out points of possible contention, while expressing optimism.

As Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton points out, the county’s work is “a lot less complicated” than the city’s. It has to approve its half of the public subsidy, and already knows it has the $300 million available in tourist taxes charged to people who book hotel rooms and short-term rentals.

“We took a financial role rather than an active project management role,” which is the city’s job, Burton said.

The city has to come up with the money for a stadium without raising taxes. Some council members want to debate whether the Rays are doing enough to create jobs and affordable housing and do right by Black residents of the former Gas Plant neighborhood plowed over 40 years ago to make way for Tropicana Field.

“The devil’s in the details with something like this,” said council member Ed Montanari, whose 2021 resolution demanded that no deal could be done without the Rays’ future decided. “We are just starting to see a little bit of some of the details.”

The council and the commission will spend next month working through and providing feedback on a term sheet, a non-binding document that outlines the framework of a deal. Burton is planning to present that framework at the commission’s Oct. 12 work session. The City Council committee will meet Oct. 26.

Then, both the city and county can get to work on preparing final documents, such as the development agreement.

“Just like in the past, not all votes will be easy,” said council chairperson Brandi Gabbard.

What City Council says

On Wednesday, City Council members received a working draft outline of future project agreements for the 17-to-20-acre ballpark site for the first time. It makes the Rays responsible for cost overruns, gives the team exclusive naming rights and includes a non-relocation agreement. It sets a goal to complete the new ballpark by November 2027.

They also received a draft term sheet for the rest of the development, approximately 65 acres, with placeholders for specifics such as the number of residences and how many must be affordable, as well as what the city will pay for infrastructure.

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For most council members, having the Rays, the county and the city negotiating teams in agreement is reason to be hopeful. But many said they wanted to know more about the financials.

“I wish it was less,” Montanari said about the public contribution, though he said other stadium deals have similar breakdowns.

“It’s going to need to be vetted thoroughly,” said council member Lisset Hanewicz. “Frankly, it’s a lot of taxpayer money.”

“I feel good about us getting to this point,” said council member Gina Driscoll. “But there may be some elements of the agreement that need to be tweaked a little bit in order for me to be 100% on board.”

Council member Copley Gerdes calls it an investment in the city, not a subsidy. His uncle, City Administrator Rob Gerdes, was the lead negotiator for the city.

“I think in order to have this type of development and this type of partnership you have to have an anchor tenant. We have one here already,” Copley Gerdes said. “There’s no reason to spend money to try to attract one here. I think the Rays have been a great community partner.”

For council member Richie Floyd, the amount of public subsidy is “incredibly difficult to stomach.” He pointed out that while the Rays are on the hook for ballpark cost overruns, any overages for the development on the rest of the 65 acres could fall to the city. He said the public contribution, which includes the county selling the Rays the land at a discount and the city paying for infrastructure, could total as much as $900 million.

“I just think people need to look at that carefully and make a decision, especially at a time when we have issues like child poverty increasing rapidly, families are moving out of the city,” he said.

Council member John Muhammad said he’d like to keep the land publicly owned instead of selling it to the Rays.

“Thinking long-term about what happens with the team and what happens with the land, just ensuring that the residents always have a voice,” he said. “You lose that when you have private ownership.”

Council vice chairperson Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she’d like to know more about housing and business opportunities for local residents.

“I’m looking forward to what it is that we still have to orchestrate to make sure that it meets the initial needs of addressing, as it’s coined now, the promises that we never kept,” she said.

What the County Commission says

Three of the seven Pinellas County commissioners responded to requests for comment for this story. Janet Long, the commission’s chairperson, was an enthusiastic “yes.”

”Is the Pope a Catholic?” she responded rhetorically when asked if she was likely to vote in favor of the stadium deal.

Rene Flowers, whose south Pinellas district includes St. Petersburg, said she’ll probably support the deal as well, as long as the county can pay its portion with tourist tax money alone.

”The only thing that would make me change my mind is if the funding stream changed, if it were something more on the taxpayers rather than on the bed tax,” she said.

Kathleen Peters said in a text message Wednesday that she needs more information on the terms of the deal before making a decision. Commissioners Charlie Justice, Dave Eggers, Chris Latvala and Brian Scott did not respond to requests for comment.