ST. PETERSBURG — Major League Baseball officials, surprised by a proposal this week to build a spring training facility for the Atlanta Braves at the Toytown landfill, said Friday that a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays remains “the most pressing need.”
The statement acknowledged Florida’s longtime commitment to spring training facilities, but urged local officials to resolve the ongoing stadium impasse between the Rays and the St. Petersburg City Council.
“Major League Baseball is committed to working with the Rays to secure a new ballpark in cooperation with the Tampa Bay region,” the statement said. “This can only happen with the support of local political and business leaders.”
Concerns were raised after a proposal by SportsPark Partners LLC to build a $662 million complex at the former landfill became public on Tuesday. It is one of three proposed developments for the site, and it includes the Braves, who said their goal is to move their spring training operations there in 2018.
The Pinellas County Commission is expected to review the proposals in the next month.
At risk for the Rays and for St. Petersburg is county tourism money that would be needed to build a new stadium for the Rays if the team remains in Pinellas. That money potentially could be diverted to the SportsPark project.
MLB said it only learned of the baseball proposal with the Braves this week. In a statement Friday, Rays President Brian Auld said the team appreciates the league’s “attention to this matter. We fully agree with and support their statement.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has tried to broker a stadium deal between the Rays and the City Council, noted the city’s long spring training history, “but we are now a major league city with a major league quality of life and world-class amenities.”
“My focus is on keeping the Rays in St. Petersburg. Absent that, my focus is on keeping them in our region,” he said in a written statement. “I am hopeful that a majority of our city council members will someday share this priority.”
The Rays, whose annual attendance ranks last or near last in the league, have been seeking a new stadium for more than five years. However, their lease with city for Tropicana Field doesn’t expire until 2027, and the council has refused to let the team look for local sites outside the city.
The council rejected a deal Kriseman crafted with the Rays that would let the team look for stadium locations in Pinellas or Hillsborough counties. Most recently, the council deadlocked on the deal in a 4-4 vote.
City Councilman Karl Nurse said the SportsPark proposal should increase the urgency of council members to reach a deal with the team before the county decides to use its tourist tax money elsewhere. The bonds used to build Tropicana Field will be paid off this month, potentially making that money available for a new stadium.
“To me, the bottom line is the mayor and the city council, between the end of this baseball season and the beginning of the next one, have to put together a deal with the Rays to get started on this thing,” Nurse said. “If that money gets sent elsewhere, I think the door closes and one day we’re going to wake up to the sound of Major League Baseball announcing the Rays will play their first game when this contract ends in another city,” he said.
With a city council election in November, Nurse, who supported Kriseman, said a newly elected member could break the council deadlock, or perhaps a current member might reconsider.
Some council members have suggested asking the county to set aside the tourist tax money, about $7 million a year, until the city resolves the issue. County commissioners and Tourist Development Council members have expressed reluctance to do so.
Council member Jim Kennedy, who opposed Kriseman’s deal, said he is disappointed the mayor has refused to commission a study of the Tropicana site to determine its value before deciding on the lease question.
“Everybody hears the clock ticking,” he said. “I thought the economic study of the Tropicana site was a way forward, especially when the Rays were willing to pay half of it, to put more information on the table,” he said.
Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes said the SportsPark proposal and the statement from MLB don’t add much urgency to the situation for him.
“I’m of the opinion it’s fairly urgent already,” he said. “I just want to make sure the revenue source we are currently using doesn’t get (used) for some other project.”
Gerdes, who voted in favor of Kriseman’s agreement, said he was relieved to hear that neither MLB nor the Rays knew about the Braves deal with SportsPark beforehand.
“I was concerned if they had spoken to the Rays, and the Rays allowed it to go forward,” he said.
“I think the conventional wisdom was the Braves would have spoken to and at least given both the Rays and MLB a heads-up on the thing. It appears that did not happen.”