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Show the Rays what public money is available for a stadium? One St. Petersburg council member thinks that's a good idea

ST. PETERSBURG - Officials practically salivate when they think about the development potential of Tropicana Field.

There's no parcel like it in Tampa Bay. It's 86 acres of publicly owned land ripe for redevelopment in a booming urban area. They've already created a wish list: attract corporate tenants and high-end office space; add entertainment and retail space; construct affordable housing; create more green space and restore Booker Creek; build a new hotel, and maybe even a convention center.

The project even has a name. The proposed Gas Plant District would be a city within a city.

But what it doesn't have is certainty. Until the Tampa Bay Rays decide whether to remain in St. Petersburg, planners don't know whether to make room for a baseball stadium.

City Council member Charlie Gerdes wants clarity, and believes it would be prudent for city, county and state officials to come up with the amount of public money that could be available to help fund a new St. Petersburg ballpark.

Gerdes hopes that will make it easier for the Rays to stay - or at least decide their future sooner.

"We need to go to them," Gerdes said. "I think we all need to be able to look each other in the face and say 'we did everything we could''' in the event the team decides to leave.

Others believe the Rays must make the first move.

"If they aren't interested in ever pursuing a new stadium, there there's no need to start convening all the other folks together and saying 'what do we think we can realistically come up with,'" Mayor Rick Kriseman said.

It's no exaggeration to declare that transforming the Trop site could change the landscape of St. Petersburg, which is why Kriseman said he's eager to move forward. The mayor said the city won't wait for the team to make up its mind. He wants to start now.

But the Rays' uncertain future limits what the city can do.

If the city starts planning now, it would have to avoid the northeast corner of the property, where a new stadium would likely go if the Rays stay. Development must already avoid the footprint around Tropicana Field. And construction could only block so many parking spaces around the dome.

The Rays' contract to play at the Trop ends in 2027, and the team isn't legally required to give notice of its intention to vacate. It can, if its ownership chooses to, stay silent until the day the team packs up and moves out.

So far, the team has stayed mum on its plans. It declined to comment for this article.

Even though the Rays spent three years trying to hammer out a stadium deal with Hillsborough County - where ownership believes the team could draw more than its dismal attendance in St. Petersburg - the financing picture has always been rosier in Pinellas County.

RELATED: Rays reject Ybor City stadium, remain committed to Tampa Bay

Pinellas has more money to offer from its tourism tax than Hillsborough. And an extra sweetener for the Rays is that the team is entitled to half the development rights at the Trop site, which could be hundreds of millions toward a new stadium. They lose those rights if they leave.

State money isn't in the cards, said state Senators Jeff Brandes and Darryl Rouson, whose districts encompass St. Petersburg. The appetite in Tallahassee for spending tax dollars on stadiums was nil under former Speaker Richard Corcoran.

"Honestly for the last six years, there's been no serious conversation about funding a stadium anywhere in Florida," Brandes said. "If Corcoran was a 10 against stadium funding, (current Speaker Jose) Oliva is a 12."

The lack of financing is what scuttled the Hillsborough deal. Rays ownership had identified a location on the edge of Ybor City, near downtown, where they hoped to build a $900 million stadium, fit with a translucent roof. But that deal fell through last month, and the three years St. Petersburg gave the Rays to flirt with Hillsborough County expired on Dec. 31.

RELATED: It's official: Tampa Bay Rays tell St. Petersburg they are finished looking elsewhere, for now

It's not just the city that's getting anxious. The Pinellas County Commission won't keep the money it earmarked for a stadium money set aside forever, said Ken Welch, a commissioner and former chair of the Tourist Development Council, which recommends ways to spend bed tax dollars to the commission.

Commissioners have already allocated the next three years of tourist taxes on capital projects. Officials are now fielding requests for projects further out.

"There are a lot of demands on the bed tax, and it's not going to sit there idle forever," Welch said. "I can't see another two years of indecision. It's time to make a decision and move on."

Gerdes' idea to run the numbers and approach the team first would convey the city and county's collective sense of urgency. But not everyone thinks that's the right strategy.

Brandes said he'd rather see the Rays make the first move instead of government officials trying to negotiate "blindly." He doesn't think it'll work anyway. He doesn't think Rays' ownership will show its hand.

"I fully expect the team to hold the site hostage as long as possible," Brandes said. "Why wouldn't they? It's their biggest negotiating chip."

That said, Gerdes thinks there could be enough different revenue streams in place to build a new stadium and help improve the Ray's bottom line - even if attendance remains flat. For example, depending on how the Trop site is built out, the team could collect revenue on the redevelopment rights for years.

He said the city has no choice but to try. St. Petersburg can't afford to lose the Rays without taking its best shot:

"We all need to be able to look each other in the face and say: We did everything we could."

Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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