Is St. Pete the new old answer in Rays’ stadium pursuit?

MLB commissioner says that’s the focus now; Sternberg is thinking about it as Kriseman waits.
Could the Rays find a new home by building a new stadium on the site of their current stadium? [Times files]
Could the Rays find a new home by building a new stadium on the site of their current stadium? [Times files]
Published Feb. 9, 2019|Updated Feb. 9, 2019

ORLANDO — What seemed likely given the lack of options after the failed Ybor City bid has become obvious in the Rays’ pursuit of a new stadium, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred saying Friday that “the focus is on St. Petersburg.”

But striking a deal to build a new home there also will be a complicated and challenging process. There are significant issues beyond covering the hundreds of millions in costs: the stadium location, the viability of remaining in that part of the market, and whether MLB would approve staying given the team’s past struggles.

And that’s with the clock ticking in what might be the last chance to keep the team from eventually leaving the Tampa Bay area after its agreement to play at Tropicana Field ends following the 2027 season.

“I have to start looking,” principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Friday. “At some point in the next 36 months, I have to explore seriously where the team is going.”

The three key leaders in the project, Manfred, Sternberg and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, all have different views on what has to happen to make it work.

The biggest question, arguably, is whether the Rays, who have ranked at or near the bottom in attendance through their first 21 seasons at the Trop and lack major corporate support, would be interested in staying in St. Petersburg.

Sternberg said Friday after the quarterly ownership meeting that he didn’t yet know because they’d have to be convinced that they would get markedly better support.

And even if the team felt it could work in St. Petersburg, Sternberg said he would have to convince Manfred and the other owners that it was a wise decision.

“It’s possible they would say no,” Sternberg said. “When we were talking about Tampa, there was a good deal of pushback from the owners over the last three to five years.

“My sense is, if we were able to work out a deal with St. Petersburg, I would have to show them a real pro forma: What would it look like, how many tickets do we expect to sell, what is the season-ticket base going to look like? Because they’re going to ask how dramatically can it or will it change. I would have to do an extensive presale of everything. … That’s going to be really hard.”

Manfred, who spoke positively of the Ybor site, which was noted for being closer to the area population center as well as the Orlando market, said MLB would be open to the team staying in St. Petersburg.

“We are still committed to the region and would like to see a solution,” Manfred told the Tampa Bay Times after the quarterly owners meetings. “We think the Tampa Bay region is a major-league market. … We’re agnostic on where. We really are. Other than in the region. I liked the Tampa site. I think there’s probably places on the St. Pete side that could be completely workable as well.”

The most likely option in St. Petersburg, and the one Kriseman favors, is building on the northeast corner of the 86-acre Trop site, which is targeted for a massive multiuse redevelopment, without or with a new stadium, and the Rays getting a share of the proceeds if they stay. Unless what would be an extremely complex deal could be worked out for a downtown waterfront site, such as Al Lang Stadium or Albert Whitted Airport. The Derby Lane site and others have already been dismissed for various reasons.

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Even how negotiations for a new St. Petersburg stadium could start sound convoluted.

Though Kriseman remained confident through the talks in Tampa that the Rays would come back to St. Petersburg, he said he won’t make the first move, insisting Sternberg has to approach him and say they want to stay.

“I’m not going to negotiate against myself,” Kriseman said. “I’ve made it clear if they want to talk about it, they have to tell me they’re interested.”

The Rays say they won’t know for a while, maybe a few months, though they sound at least intrigued by the possibility.

“I would expect if we are interested it would be a collaborative effort to try to get something done,” Sternberg said Friday. “The land is there. The will is there. There’s money that’s available; (Pinellas) County has been supportive up to this point. We’ve got real good solid people who are up for progress. They want to develop the land. They want baseball. They see the value of developing the land and the value of baseball.”

But not everyone has given up on the possibility of the team moving across the bay.

Even in saying St. Petersburg was the focus, Manfred mentioned the possibility of reopening talks in Tampa. Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said he remains optimistic that the team will end up there, as did Tampa Bay Rays 2020 business group leader Ron Christaldi.

But doing so would require a new agreement with St. Petersburg to allow for such negotiations. And that sounds unlikely.

Sternberg said he has no plans to ask for another window (which would require financial compensation), but suggested the Tampa leaders could if they were ready to make a better deal.

Either way, Kriseman said it was unlikely he’d agree anyway, noting the Rays and Tampa officials just had three years to work something out and failed. “I think that window is closed,” he said. “They’d have to put a pretty sweet deal on the table to entice me to even talk about it.”

Hagan called that “an extremely short-sighted position” and claimed Kriseman would force the team to relocate. “Taking that hardline stance you’re essentially forcing their hands to stay at Tropicana Field,” he said. “And if you do that, by 2028 they’re going to leave the region. They’re not going to stay in St. Pete.”

Manfred said he was “disappointed” the Rays and Tampa leaders couldn’t work out the deal for a $900-million stadium on the Ybor site by the Dec. 31 expiration of the “free look” agreement. He sent a strongly worded letter to Hillsborough officials pointing out how their offer was incomplete in advance of the Rays announcing in December that they were ending talks.

“There was a lot of time and resources devoted to getting a deal done on that side,” Manfred said. “I very reluctantly weighed in on the topic because I felt it was important for people to understand why it came up short and where it came up short.”

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays. Contact John Romano at Follow @romano_tbtimes.