ST. PETERSBURG — We have developers! We have land! We have a vision for homes, offices, hotels, cultural amenities and a cutting-edge ballpark for the Rays!
We also have a high probability for chaos and confusion.
You might have heard that Friday was the deadline for proposals to redevelop the 86-acre site where Tropicana Field sits, and four groups submitted bids. The hopefuls are expected to pitch their plans to the public early next month, and Mayor Ken Welch will pick a winner by the end of January.
If you had a sense of deja vu reading that paragraph, it’s because Friday was the one-year anniversary of former Mayor Rick Kriseman’s similar announcement that he had picked a developer for the Trop site.
Of course, Kriseman’s dream was doomed from the start because a) the Rays were not happy the stadium plan was optional and b) he was a month away from being term-limited out of office.
So, will Welch’s ambitions suffer a similar fate?
That depends on which bid he chooses, but I wouldn’t start picking out bleacher seats just yet.
You see, this isn’t as simple as the mayor picking his favorite developer. While Welch might have the fancy office at City Hall, he does not have complete control of the Trop site. At least not until 2028.
When it comes to redeveloping that land, the Rays and the city are contractually bound to each other until the stadium’s use agreement expires. And unlike last year’s bidding process, the Rays have decided to team up with real estate giant Hines to submit their own proposal for the land.
And team officials made it pretty clear Friday that they are not enthusiastic about working with any other developers the mayor might be interested in.
“Trying to stick another plan around our (proposed) ballpark is something that we just don’t think works,” Rays president Brian Auld said. “This entire development is why we think baseball can be successful in St. Petersburg.”
So what happens if Welch chooses, for instance, Sugar Hill Community Partners, which was the only finalist from last year to resubmit a bid? Good question.
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The Rays could simply decide they have no interest in remaining in St. Petersburg after their lease runs out following the 2027 season, so any stadium plan would be nixed.
And since the team is entitled to share in 50 percent of whatever revenues are realized from potential redevelopment, the city would essentially be paying the Rays to leave town if stadiumless development starts before 2028. On top of all that, the Rays could object to any ongoing redevelopment as a hindrance to their current business plan, and that would potentially be settled through litigation.
Sounds messy, doesn’t it? So Welch should probably go with the Hines bid, right?
Well, even that comes with complications. While Rays owner Stu Sternberg said the Hines proposal is his main focus right now, he did not rule out the possibility of further talks with Tampa officials.
Maybe that’s just a fallback plan. Maybe it’s an anvil the Rays are holding over Welch’s head. Or maybe a waterfront stadium near Ybor City is the team’s dream home.
The bottom line is the stadium’s current use agreement is a dual-edged sword. It has kept the Rays from moving to, say Nashville, but it also restricts the city from developing a critical plot of downtown-adjacent land.
And that’s why both Kriseman’s and Welch’s bid processes have been horribly flawed. They have treated the Rays as if they are mere tenants on the land, but the team is more like a squatter with good lawyers.
If the city has to reverse national bidding competitions in back-to-back years, it’s going to look like Barney, Goober and Aunt Bea are running City Hall.
The better strategy would have been to work hand in hand with the Rays on a plan instead of making it an open competition. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
Kriseman tried to negotiate with the Rays, and he said their demands were outrageous. Past mayors Bill Foster and Rick Baker also were not fond of their dealings with the team.
So where does that leave things today?
Somewhere between limbo and deep doo-doo would probably be the most accurate description.
And if the dilemma of the developer and the site are miraculously resolved in the next two months, then it’s time to focus on the real issue:
Who’s picking up the stadium’s $1 billion-plus check?
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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