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Stadium scoreboard: Rays 1, Mayor 0

John Romano | Mayor Rick Kriseman drew a line in the sand when it came to Tropicana Field redevelopment, and the Rays convinced the City Council to step over it.
Mayor Kriseman  addresses the St. Petersburg City Council as they debate the redevelopment effort at Tropicana Field and the negotiations with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Mayor Kriseman addresses the St. Petersburg City Council as they debate the redevelopment effort at Tropicana Field and the negotiations with the Tampa Bay Rays. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | John Pendygraft ]
Published Mar. 26
Updated Mar. 26

ST. PETERSBURG — They are good, never doubt that. For years, we’ve watched the Rays front office outsmart much of the American League while playing with a fraction of everyone else’s payroll.

So are you really surprised to hear they might have a plan to outmaneuver local politicians, too?

Two months after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman declared a Rays stadium proposal to be a non-starter, an apparent majority of City Council members now want to hear more about it.

Can you say, divide and conquer?

This would be delightful if it wasn’t so critical to the bay area’s future. The Rays have taken advantage of Kriseman’s testy relationship with a lot of council members to essentially turn this fight around.

Related: As Rays make progress in Montreal, union has questions

Ever since Kriseman tried to publicly humiliate the Rays with a January news conference across the street from the stadium, team officials have quietly been meeting with Council members to make the case that they are the innocent bystanders.

Mind you, they’re the ones with the billion-dollar franchise, they’re the ones hoping for public funds, they’re the ones talking about moving half their games to Montreal, and they’ve convinced the world that Kriseman is the bully.

Remarkably enough, they’re not necessarily wrong.

The idea to forge ahead with the development of the Tropicana Field site without resolving the stadium issue has always been nonsensical and political. It feels more like a legacy project in the final months of an administration than sound public policy.

If the plan offered by the Rays in private is precisely as Kriseman described, then he had every right to say no. And if he thinks the sister city concept with Montreal is a losing proposition, he had every right to say no.

But that doesn’t mean the next step is rushing into the redevelopment of the Tropicana site.

First of all, the Rays have some contractual leverage in that redevelopment and they could easily tie it up in court. And if they choose not to do that, then they reap 50 percent of the proceeds from the redevelopment rights, which means St. Petersburg would be paying the Rays to eventually leave in 2028. A developer, meanwhile, would be trying to build a downtown-defining project around an existing stadium because the Rays are not leaving Tropicana Field until they have a viable location elsewhere.

Does any of that sound like something you want to rush into?

Related: In Tropicana Field debate, St. Petersburg City Council asks: Where are the Rays?

“I can tell you about affordable housing, I can tell you about job creation, honoring our history, having green space. None of that matters if we don’t have a complete picture of what the Rays are going to do,” said Council member Gina Driscoll. “All of those things are going to be informed by whether or not they are here.

“We need to put first things first. We need to engage with the Rays more. I implore the mayor to continue to talk with them as a partner, as a group that we kind of want to keep around. Let’s go from there and build something right.”

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Driscoll was not alone. At least four other Council members also expressed interest in continuing talks with the Rays, which means Kriseman does not appear to have enough votes to get a development agreement approved.

So where do we go from here? Probably in another nine-month holding pattern.

It’s hard to imagine Kriseman acquiescing to a Rays proposal at this point, and it’s hard to imagine the City Council giving him the go-ahead to hire a developer when term limits will force him out of office in January.

That means the Rays and the Council likely will bide their time until a new mayor is elected in November and takes over in 2022. Will the Montreal plan look any better nine months from now? Not really. But ignoring your contractual partner is not a winning strategy.

The city does not want to wait needlessly to begin building at the Tropicana site, but forging ahead without a stadium decision has far more risk.

“I do agree that we’re at a point where we need to hear from the Rays,” Council chair Ed Montanari said. “We need to have an understanding of what they want to do. I want the Rays to stay in St. Petersburg. I’m not a big fan of the split season plan, but I want to talk to them. I want to hear from them. I want to get more details of the plans they have.

“That doesn’t mean I’m going to cave in to what the Rays want. I’m glad we’re bringing in a consultant who understands how to negotiate with Major League Baseball. There’s a lot at stake here. There’s a lot at stake in developing 86 acres of land, and there’s a lot at stake in having a Major League Baseball team.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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