Skeptical council tells Rays where they can shove their stadium agreement

It was a discussion most lawyerly Thursday night as city and baseball officials discussed the fate of baseball in St. Pete.

In the end, baseball lost the game.

Citing concern over what could be a raw deal for the city, the St. Petersburg City Council voted 5-3 to reject a memorandum of understanding (or, agreement) that would have let the Tampa Bay Rays explore potential stadium sites in other traffic-choked parts of the Tampa Bay region, such as Tampa. 

The document would have allowed the team to look at possible new stadium sites in Hillsborough County because they are so over playing at the Trop. If the team opted to leave St. Petersburg for another site in Hillsborough or Pinellas counties (nowhere else, though), they would have had to pay the city $30 million or less, depending on which year they left the stadium before the team's contract to play there ends in 2027. If they were totally lame and left the region, the deal would have been off.

Mark Ferguson, who owns the popular Rays fan bar Ferg's across from the Trop, called that amount "chump change" in a recent radio interview.

The city and the team will also split money that would be made from redeveloping the land on which the Trop and a shit-ton of parking spaces sits, something that drew skepticism from the council.

Mayor Rick Kriseman, who spent months brokering the deal with the team, looked a little bummed out as he spoke to the press after Thursday's vote.

"It's disappointing that the St. Petersburg City Council rejected the progress and certainty that this agreement provided," he said. "St. Petersburg and the entire Tampa Bay region stand to lose baseball and receive nothing in return. This is an unfortunate outcome for St. Petersburg's taxpayers, and for every fan of the Rays."

He said he wasn't sure what the key sticking point was that ultimately made it fail, and thanked council members Karl Nurse, Darden Rice and Charlie Gerdes for supporting the MOU.

If the document had a chance of passing unscathed Thursday night, that shot probably went away as Councilwoman Amy Foster (who said she'd been on the fence) spoke directly to Rays president Brian Auld. He had said earlier in the meeting the team was committed to Tampa Bay. That's not what he told her during a private meeting, she said. 

“One of the things that I heard loud and clear from Brian Auld today is that you want to stay here, you want to stay in the region, and that you're committed to this,” she said. “But one of the things you said to me in my office is you're still not sure that this region will work out. And I'd like to hear a little bit more about that."

He said there is simply no such thing as 100 percent certainty on anything, really, let alone that the team will stay in the area.

Then Foster offered this doozy:

"Everybody's talking about, 'this is what's best for Major League Baseball.' And I still would like to provide you the opportunity to present to the public today why this is best for St. Petersburg.”

Auld's response?

"We face tremendous challenges as a Major League Baseball team in this market," he said (dude, did you not just hear what she asked you?). "I don't think that's lost on anyone that's here in front of us. And so when I suggest that there's no silver bullet, there's no obvious answer, there's no place where it would be clear that if we built our ballpark that we would be able to have a sustainable, successful business going forward, that happens to be the truth. Personally ... I believe Tampa Bay, somewhere, possesses the best possible location for us to be successful in the long term."

Councilwoman Darden Rice said the reason behind her support was simple: the deal before them was the product of the mayor and the team negotiating for months.

“I want the Rays to stay in St. Petersburg; we all want the Rays to stay in St. Petersburg," she said. “This is a compromise. This is the result of negotiations that have taken place over the last year.”

As word about the agreement and council's reluctance to accept it spread weeks ago, Rays owner Stu Sternberg said he would probably have to sell the team if the deal did not go through. Earlier on in the meeting, during time set aside for public comment, people were mixed as to what the best route might be. One person told the council not to vote based on fear; that the Rays would be dumb to leave Tampa Bay.

"I don't think we should let it go at this price,” said resident Dan Harvey. “Baseball's not leaving Tampa Bay. It's the 13th largest TV market in America.”

Others told the council this was the city's last shot at benefitting from a stadium deal.

“It's a wasting asset,” said Craig Sher, who was a member of the ABC commission, a group that in 2008 studied potential resolutions to the issue. “If you let the Rays look I think there is a better than even chance that they will end up in Pinellas County.” 

The council seemed to agree about the team probably ending up in back in Pinellas. Before they took a vote on the MOU, they approved the scheduling of a workshop in which they will discuss ways to fund a new stadium for the team to play in within the city. 

"We've got a constituency here that's worried," said Councilman Wengay Newton, who voted against it. "We've got a hotel industry and over 3,000 jobs that are dependent on the team being in St. Pete. So we can't just turn our back and say 'you can go.'"

Whether or not a new stadium on this side of the bay would be enough to make the team stay is the question.

After the meeting, Auld issued a statement about the vote.

“We are obviously disappointed with the City Council’s decision today. Our goal was to begin a collaborative, exploratory process in our region to determine the best location for a next generation ballpark. The Council has instead decided that the status quo is what is in the best interest of the citizens of St. Petersburg.”

Thus, any degree of certainty about anything when it comes to the Tampa Bay Rays is essentially out the door. Do you like endless speculation? Because that's how you get endless speculation.

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