ST. PETERSBURG - With the Tampa Bay Rays climbing in the standings in recent weeks, the impasse between the team and city officials over Tropicana Field has faded from the headlines.
Behind the scenes, though, Mayor Bill Foster and Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg have been talking, and city attorneys have been meeting with team officials to negotiate an agreement that would allow the team to explore other possible stadium sites. The most recent meeting with the city's legal team took place Wednesday morning.
The two sides have been discussing a proposal under which the Rays would be free to explore sites in Tampa and Hillsborough County after first conducting an extensive review of a proposed stadium site in Carillon, according to St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Karl Nurse. The agreement also would restate that the Rays are under contract to play at the Trop through 2027, he said.
"It seemed to me in very short order that there was conceptual agreement as to where we were trying to go," Nurse said Wednesday. "Maybe there would be some money that would change hands; I don't think that is the critical element."
After not having met face-to-face for a year, discussions between Foster and Sternberg - the two central players in the stadium dispute - resumed Feb. 15, after Rays executives received supportive receptions during meetings with the Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissions.
Tuesday, Sternberg spoke optimistically about his ongoing discussions with the mayor, who is fending off criticisms of, among other issues, his handling of the Rays stadium issue in a tough re-election campaign.
"I would like to believe that that's going to bear some fruit and allow us the opportunity to put this franchise on great footing for generations to come," Sternberg said.
Team officials want to "do what we think is necessary to at least see what's out there," he said.
Plagued with chronic low attendance despite fielding competitive teams over the past several seasons, Rays officials have pleaded to explore other stadium sites in the Tampa Bay area, arguing that the team's current financial situation isn't sustainable. This season, the Rays' 17,791 average per-game attendance is the second-worst in Major League Baseball - behind only the Miami Marlins - and the team's midseason attendance numbers were down nearly 15 percent year-over-year.
While the ABC Coalition - the group chartered by Foster's predecessor, Rick Baker, to consider stadium options - concluded in 2010 that two of the Rays' best options for a new stadium site were in Hillsborough County, Foster has refused to allow the team to look beyond Pinellas County - and threatened legal action should neighboring governments try and woo the team from St. Petersburg. So it's significant that the two sides have even the framework of an agreement that would let the Rays explore options across the bay.
Nailing down the details of such an agreement is still a long way off, though, City Attorney John Wolfe said Wednesday.
"There's a large gap that has to be somehow bridged between protecting the interest of the city and the Rays preparing for the future," Wolfe said.
The agreement would specify how extensive an analysis of the Carillon stadium site would need to be, ensuring the location gets more than a cursory look, Nurse said. That likely would include an analysis of how many people live within 30 minutes of the business park, located north of St. Petersburg and just off the Howard Frankland bridge, and whether estimated extra revenue from ticket sales would be sufficient to cover the cost of the Rays paying off the team's portion of a new stadium, which could be as much as $200 million. Such an analysis also would have to consider whether the Carillon site could handle game-day traffic and would have sufficient parking.
In September, CityScape LLC proposed building a 35,000-seat ballpark at Carillon that would have been surrounded by new retail shops, apartments and offices. Cost estimates for that stadium ranged from $424 million for an open-air ballpark to $577 million for one with a retractable roof. While city officials were optimistic the proposal might end the stalemate over the stadium and keep the Rays in Pinellas County, developer Darryl LeClair never detailed his financing plan, and the project never got off the ground.
Wednesday, a representative of LeClair's company, Echelon Development, which developed and manages the Carillon Office Park, said company officials are encouraged the city and Rays are trying to work out an agreement that would put a Carillon stadium back in play.
"I would be willing to put what we've done up against anything in Hillsborough County," said Chris Eastman, president of CityScape, an Echelon affiliate.
Echelon leaders have been frustrated that their Carillon proposal has stalled and have warned that the land available for a new ballpark won't remain undeveloped indefinitely. However, Echelon officials will try to keep enough land available for a stadium as they develop the site, Eastman said.
"We just can't sit around and wait forever," he said.
Any agreement to allow the Rays to explore other stadium sites would need to include a study of the economic impact of the Rays leaving Tropicana Field, Nurse said. City officials, though, have already speculated about the property's potential for redevelopment - either for offices, retail shops, housing or a combination of all three. The location, which is just a few blocks outside downtown and next to the up-and-coming Edge district along Central Avenue, could be an attractive option for companies wanting to be close to the action of a bustling urban center,
The proposal would require an amendment to the current lease or a new agreement. Previously, city attorneys have warned that changes to the lease would weaken the city's legal position in enforcing its contract.
Asking the Rays to acknowledge the team's obligation to play at the Trop through 2027 would be intended to remedy that possibility.
However, given the team's repeated warnings that it cannot generate sufficient revenue there and Major League Baseball's insistence that the Rays' current situation is "simply not sustainable," it's hard to imagine Sternberg's club playing there for another 14 years.
The team's lease with the city, though, does not include a buyout clause, and the current talks have not extended to the potential cost of the Rays buying its way out of Tropicana Field, Nurse said. Should the Rays decide to pursue a new stadium site, the team would have to enter into separate negotiations with the city.
The terms of the agreement the city and Rays are now exploring are similar to a proposal floated in February by Councilman Charlie Gerdes. His plan would have given the Rays one year to explore new sites after paying a $1.4 million exploration fee - roughly, the amount the city pays to subsidize Tropicana Field. That idea faltered after the City Council deadlocked over amending the Rays' lease.
Whether or not the current agreement being negotiated would receive sufficient political support remains uncertain.
The four council members who voted against Gerdes' plan on Wednesday expressed concerns the new agreement would give the Rays room to break its lease at Tropicana Field.
"Once there is a kink in the armor, it opens up the floodgates. We have to be real careful as far as I am concerned." said Councilman Bill Dudley. "I'm going to look at it real close,"
Tribune reporter Roger Mooney contributed to this report.