ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays – and Hillsborough County – officially are on the clock.
The St. Petersburg City Council voted 5-3 Thursday to approve an agreement that gives the Rays up to three years to look for a stadium location outside of the city.
“This agreement is good news for baseball fans, for our taxpayers, for the city of St. Petersburg and for our entire region,” Mayor Rick Kriseman said after the vote.
The long awaited approval – which follows two failed attempts in the past 13 months – gives Hillsborough a chance to woo the Rays across the bay, where the team has wanted to search for more than five years.
Its long-standing contract with St. Petersburg prohibited the team from looking, or even talking with officials, outside the city before its lease at Tropicana Field expires in 2027.
“This has been a long time coming,” Rays owner Stu Sternberg said at a news conference at Tropicana Field after the vote. “We’re pretty excited, obviously. We’re going to do everything possible to make sure baseball is here for a long time.”
Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who watched the meeting from his home, commended the council for “a decision that is in the best interest of the entire Tampa Bay region.”
“The goal is to sit down as soon as possible” with the Rays, he said.
Hagan, a leading cheerleader to bring the team to Hillsborough, helped form a committee there that he said will meet in the next two weeks to form a plan. The committee includes Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa Sports Authority President Eric Hart, Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes and Fifth Third Bank Tampa Bay President Brian Lamb.
Hagen spoke Thursday with Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, Chief Financial Officer Bonnie Wise and County Attorney Chip Fletcher in a conference call with attorneys from Foley Lardner, a law firm with ties to Major League Baseball that the county retained in October 2014.
Sternberg, who attended the St. Petersburg council meeting with team President Brian Auld but left before the vote, thanked the council for the years-long discussions that have taken place.
“Baseball shouldn’t bring any angst — other than losing baseball games,” Sternberg said. “It was never my intent, our intent, to do something that wasn’t going to work for both sides. I couldn’t look in the mirror otherwise.”
Auld said the agreement “is the first step toward securing the future of the Rays and Major League Baseball in the Tampa Bay area.”
New council member Lisa Wheeler-Brown, sworn into office Jan. 2, proved to be the deciding vote in breaking what had been a 4-4 stalemate on the council. Wheeler-Brown replaced Wengay Newton, a steadfast opponent to the deal, along with members Jim Kennedy, Steve Kornell and Bill Dudley, who was replaced by Ed Montanari.
Council member Charlie Gerdes, a consistent supporter, said freeing the team to search is the only way to keep it in area.
“Keeping the Rays in St. Petersburg until 2027 is easy,” he said, by doing nothing with the lease. “I’m convinced if I do that, I’m also voting for them to be certain gone in 2027.”
Even with the vote, the council and Kriseman said they intend to make an aggressive bid to keep the team in the city and at the Tropicana site.
Potential sites mentioned in Hillsborough include the Tampa Park Apartments on Nuccio Parkway, the Florida Fairgrounds and the Tampa Greyhound Track. Hagan said a new ballpark may be part of a larger development.
Kriseman sent the current deal to council members last week, confident he had at least five votes needed after meeting individually with council members and Auld.
The agreement gives the Rays three years to find another stadium site, but requires them to give the city at least six months to come up with a proposal of its own. The team is not allowed to leave Tropicana before 2018.
“I firmly believe St. Petersburg, and that location, is the best location for the team,” Kriseman told the council. “I think we have a very compelling argument.”
The Rays also must contribute up to $100,000 toward a master redevelopment plan for the 85-acre Tropicana site, which Kriseman has said will show the economic opportunities there, perhaps enticing the team to stay. The agreement provides for the Rays to get half of the redevelopment proceeds from the 70 or so acres available for development should they choose to build a new stadium there.
The city also has touted the $8 million a year in sales tax revenue that could be available for a new stadium, and the fact that the property is there and ready.
Leaving the city before 2027 could cost the Rays up to $24 million, depending on how soon they depart. The team would pay $4 million for 2018, $3 million a year for 2019-22, and $2 million for 2023-26.
The redevelopment potential of the Trop property has been estimated at $1 billion or more. The Rays could be the developer if they choose.
Kriseman said a master planning process would begin right away. Council member Karl Nurse said downtown redevelopment is wrapping around the Tropicana area “and overwhelmingly the big money is redeveloping around that area.”
Several council members extolled the economic opportunity at the Tropicana site if the team leaves and the benefits to city taxpayers.
Kennedy, who voted against the deal, wondered what happens if the Rays don’t find the perfect place in Pinellas or Hillsborough counties. “I think this is just the starting point of a potential larger relocation,” he said.
Sternberg said the team has no interest in looking outside of the area. “Nothing could be less factual,” he said.
He said he has no specific locations, stadium plans or financing plans in mind, adding there have been a variety of alternatives used in stadium construction in other cities.
“We are going to make certain we do this correctly going forward. And we don’t want to be in any rush,” he said.
The goal is to give fans what they want, he said, whether it’s access to the ballpark, amenities or real grass on the field. “Little things matter to a lot of people,” he said. If it gets more fans to come, “that’s a big start.”
New council member Montanari, who voted against the agreement, noted taxpayers have invested $400 million in the stadium and the team, about half of it from the city. He said he was concerned the Rays could use the opportunity “to pit St. Petersburg and Pinellas County against Hillsborough County.”
Council Chairwoman Amy Foster, who opposed the first deal, said she believes the Rays will be good partners and the agreement is the best path. “Doing nothing is not an option,” she said.
Council member Darden Rice said the lease with the team loses value every year as it moves toward 2027, and the city should act now.
Kornell said while he opposes letting the team out of its contract, he will do all he can to keep it in St. Petersburg.
The Rays, who have finished last in Major League Baseball attendance in 10 of their 18 years, have sought the city’s permission since 2009 to look for stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
But Sternberg told the council that young people now are growing up as Rays fans, “and that’s where we have to grow.”
Kriseman initiated talks with the Rays soon after he took office in January 2014 to resolve a longtime stalemate between city officials and the team regarding the Tropicana Field lease.
The council shot down the first deal in December 2014, and deadlocked 4-4 on a revised second proposal in which the Rays agreed to relinquish their right to redevelopment money if the team moved.