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Official tries to ensure Tampa ballpark site remains available if Rays move

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Published:   |   Updated: September 6, 2013 at 08:10 PM

TAMPA — Even as stadium talks between St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay Rays stall, one Hillsborough County official is trying to ensure that a leading potential ballpark site remains available if the Rays ever decide to move across the bay.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan has asked the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team, Jeff Vinik, to consider a Rays stadium on land he partly owns across from the Forum in downtown Tampa. Vinik is a partner with a Colorado-based investment group in at least 14 acres across from the Forum, and he’s been planning a large-scale development project there.

Hagan said he asked Vinik’s group not to make any plans until the Rays’ standoff with St. Petersburg is resolved. Hagan said he’s not committed to Vinik’s property, which sits on each side of Caesar Street and just north of Channelside Drive, but wants to have several potential stadium sites available in case the Rays come knocking.

“What I have asked them to do is to not make any commitments toward their development until we have an understanding of how the Rays’ potential relocation efforts are played out,” Hagan said.

A Lightning spokesman said the team and Vinik have no comment.

This week saw more bickering between St. Petersburg and the Rays over the stadium stalemate. Until the last few weeks, the city appeared ready to allow the team to scout potential stadium sites in Hillsborough County as well as Pinellas County. However, discussions between the two camps appear to have collapsed. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster this week told his city council in a memo that Major League Baseball doesn’t “seem interested in a cooperative effort to keep the Rays in the Tampa Bay region for the long term.”

The mayor didn’t give any details, but two St. Petersburg councilmen told the Tribune this week that baseball doesn’t want the Rays to compensate the city for breaking their stadium use agreement.

“Their premise is they shouldn’t have to pay us anything,” council Chairman Karl Nurse told the Tribune. “I can’t imagine how they can say, ‘We owe you nothing. Goodbye.’ And I can’t imagine the city agreeing to that.”

The Rays declined to comment on the council members’ allegations.

It’s not clear that the stalemate between the city and the team will lead to litigation, but St. Petersburg has been preparing itself just in case. Two years ago the city put a New York bankruptcy lawyer with the firm Brown Rudnick LLP on retainer. The idea was to have a lawyer in place as a defensive move if the Rays decide to file for bankruptcy protection, St. Petersburg city attorney John Wolfe said at the time. A bankruptcy judge could theoretically void the team’s stadium contract.

Wolfe on Friday said the city has talked with its bankruptcy attorney fairly recently and that he’s monitoring the Rays-St. Petersburg discussions. Wolfe also said the city has talked with other attorneys that operate outside the bankruptcy arena, in case the Rays pursue a different legal strategy. The city hasn’t yet hired one of these more general attorneys, he said.

Other cities have tried to block sports teams from leaving their arenas and stadiums before their leases expire, but history shows that judges often allow teams to get out of leases in return for money damages.

Wolfe said he knows of some communities that have successfully blocked teams in the short term, but couldn’t name any that had done it in the long term.

The city of Glendale, Ariz., attempted to block the Phoenix Coyotes of the National Hockey League from leaving for Canada. That team filed for bankruptcy protection and asked the judge to let it void its arena lease, said Thomas Salerno, a Phoenix-based lawyer for the Coyotes’ previous owner.

The judge never ruled on Glendale’s request to enforce the contract, because the NHL eventually stepped in and bought the team from its owner.

However, Salerno said a stadium lease is not that much different from other real estate leases that can be voided in court.

“The bottom line is these stadium lease agreements or use agreements, they’re really in the nature of a lease, an office lease or an apartment lease,” he said.

The Rays’ stadium agreement with St. Petersburg doesn’t have a buyout clause that gives the team the right to move in exchange for a payment or series of payments. Conceivably, a developer or another government that is courting the Rays could offer to pay St. Petersburg to make it whole for everything the city has spent on Tropicana Field and in luring the team to town.

Hagan, the Hillsborough commissioner, has pushed to let the Rays look for a new home in Hillsborough County, but he was adamant that Hillsborough taxpayers won’t compensate St. Petersburg.

“No, I can’t see any circumstance where Hillsborough County would compensate St. Pete for allowing the Rays to break their use agreement,” Hagan said.

It’s unclear if Lightning owner Vinik has any interest in putting a stadium on his downtown Tampa land, but his property is one of several that could accommodate a new ballpark. Others include the Tampa Park Apartments property along Nuccio Parkway east of downtown and the Florida State Fairgrounds.

Hagan said he doesn’t expect much progress in the St. Petersburg-Rays negotiations until after the November elections, when St. Petersburg voters decide whether to keep Foster in office.

“If we haven’t seen any movement shortly after the November elections, we may have to amplify our efforts,” Hagan said.

msasso@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7865

Twitter: @msasso

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