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Thursday, Mar 21, 2019
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City Council: Keep the Rays in St. Pete

As the Tampa Bay Rays look for a way out of Tropicana Field, the city council is not ready to concede that the team needs to go anywhere.

St. Petersburg council members on Thursday discussed the possibility of building a new stadium to keep the team, potentially by redeveloping the 85-acre Tropicana Field property and combining such things as a hotel or a small convention center with a new ball park.

“We have the ability and the desire to maintain St. Petersburg as the home of the Rays much past 2027” when the team’s lease with the city expires, Councilman Jim Kennedy said at a council workshop, though he added, “I realize without the Rays getting on board, it’s more difficult.”

County tourist taxes and state money used to build Tropicana, and other potential sources, including the Rays, could be enough to build a new stadium, which is estimated to cost $500 to $600 million, Kennedy said.

To emphasize their commitment, council members voted 7-0 on a resolution saying they want to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg, even as the team is angling to look elsewhere.

“I’m not sure that as soon as you let them look, they’re gone,” council Chairman Charlie Gerdes said. “I don’t personally accept that premise. I look at it as, the sooner we let them look, the sooner we’re in the game to keep them here.”

Gerdes suggested asking the county commission to delay rededicating the one-cent tourism tax money — about $6 million a year — that was dedicated to Tropicana Field until a stadium decision is made.

The council also voted to ask Mayor Rick Kriseman to consider a study to explore economic effects of the team staying or leaving the city, and another to examine the value of a baseball stadium vs. other opportunities at the site.

Councilman Steve Kornell said the city’s money might be better spent on other needs.

“The Rays say they need to look at all of their options, that it’s a business decision,” Kornell said. “I respect that, but the city needs to do the same thing.”

The council’s discussion comes as Kriseman and the Rays continue to negotiate a deal to let the team explore sites outside of St. Petersburg before its lease expires. Kriseman has said an agreement could come before the baseball season opens on April 6.

The council rejected a deal Kriseman proposed in December because of concerns about potential development rights on the stadium property, and whether the Rays should be allowed to share those.

Instead, the council voted to hold Thursday’s workshop to discuss the possibility of building a stadium in St. Petersburg.

Kriseman advised city staffers not to participate in the council’s workshop, calling it premature. Spokesman Ben Kirby said the mayor wouldn’t comment on the council’s discussion until being briefed on the meeting.

As for the resolution to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg, “that’s what the mayor has been saying all along,” Kirby said.

The Rays, whose game attendance has been at or near the bottom of Major League Baseball, have been seeking approval for five years to explore other locations in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Several places mentioned as possibilities no longer appear likely, such the Channel District in Tampa, which Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is redeveloping, or the Carillon area in northeast St. Petersburg.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has led efforts to get the team to Hillsborough, said it is prudent to review potential stadium financing and the economic effect of developing the Tropicana property.

“However, the Rays have been crystal clear in their position of not considering any future stadium option until they’re allowed to look around the region,” Hagan said. “I’m hopeful (Thursday’s) action is the next step in this process.”

He said there is no guarantee Hillsborough could find a location or stadium funding, but questioned the wisdom of St. Petersburg planning a new stadium on the site where attendances already have failed.

“To seriously consider a new stadium at their current location is a recipe for disaster,” Hagan said.

Rays officials on Thursday declined to comment on the St. Petersburg council’s discussion.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said it wasn’t his place to comment on what the St. Petersburg council does. “I’m just looking forward to the day when the Rays can look and make a decision for themselves,” he said. “That decision may be Pinellas, but they need to be able to look for the benefit of the Rays and for the entire region. Our number one goal is to keep the Rays in the region.”

St. Petersburg Councilman Wengay Newton, wearing a Rays game jersey and bow tie, called the Rays “our team” and said the city needs to try to keep them.

“We have the contract (with the Rays) and we have not put forth any proposal to keep the team here,” Newton said.

Newton pointed out the Rays thought the city was a viable baseball location when they proposed building a downtown waterfront stadium several years ago. Still, he said, “to say they’ll look elsewhere and return to St. Pete is wishful thinking.”

Councilman Bill Dudley said adding a hotel or a small convention center could contribute economically to a stadium at the Trop site. Baltimore and Texas have hotels attached to their ballparks, he said.

“Those things make a lot of sense,” he said. Also, the city has the advantage already of owning the Tropicana property with infrastructure in place.

But he said the city would need “multiple partners” to fund a stadium. Councilman Karl Nurse said it could require another penny from tourist tax money, more partners and “the Rays ponying up more than they’ve discussed.”

Councilwoman Darden Rice and Kornell worried the council might be undermining Kriseman’s negotiations with the team just as the sides are nearing agreement after years of often acrimonious talks.

“We have to stop treating the Rays as our prisoner and start treating them as our partner,” Rice said.

City leaders have refused for years to let the team look for a new home outside the city, saying they must protect taxpayers’ investment in the Trop. There also was concern that letting the team look elsewhere would weaken the city’s legal position to enforce its contract.

Dudley said the council only is exploring possibilities, which shouldn’t affect the mayor’s negotiations.

Gerdes said the public discussion is beneficial to the mayor and the public. “It lets them know what we’re thinking,” he said.

Tribune reporter Christopher O’Donnell contributed to this report.

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