A proposal that could have allowed the Tampa Bay Rays organization to look for stadium options outside St. Petersburg if they paid the city an annual exploration fee failed Thursday in a city council meeting.
St. Pete council member Charlie Gerdes put forward the proposal to amend the use-agreement in hopes that it could end the stalemate and jumpstart communications between Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and the city.
"How do we break the stalemate," Gerdes asked. "In order to have a relationship, we got to be talking. We need a vibrant, engaged relationship where we are thinking about the future.
"Not just to have the Rays here until 2027. Not to merely have them live up to the contractual agreement," Gerdes said. "To have the Rays be here in 2055, and 2100."
Gerdes' new business item would allow the Rays to look for other stadium options in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties if they paid an annual "exploration" fee. He said the fee would be $1.4 million a year, which is the five-year average of subsidies St. Pete taxpayers have paid for the Trop.
In recent weeks, Sternberg and the Rays have meet with the Hillsborough and Pinellas County commissions to talk about stadium locations.
City Attorney John Wolfe argued strongly against passing the amendment without giving his legal staff time to review the proposal because of future legal ramifications.
He said it was in the best interest to the citizens of St. Pete to not hold a workshop on the issue, not to amend the use agreement.
"Give Gerdes credit, he has written a very tight (amendment), I just think it is a start for a path which would eventually lead to the rays leaving the area," Wolfe said. "I have dealt with Major League Baseball owners over the years, they look long range, believe me. They have a plan. And they’ll try to get there."
He said amending the use agreement would weaken the city's position.
"My concern right now, we are in the best negotiating position we'll ever be in," Wolfe said Thursday.
Mayor Bill Foster and council member Jim Kennedy agreed.
"I do not believe that your proposal at this point in time is in the best interest of the city of St. Petersburg and its residents," Kennedy said. "The biggest flaw in it, it requires us to discuss our legal strategy in public. I don’t feel as if we can successfully negotiate with the rays and Major League Baseball if we are required to put our legal strategies in public and they can sit back and cherry pick.
"We are attempting to negotiate against ourselves," Kennedy added. "Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to hold your cards and let the game play out."
"Listen to your attorney," Foster told council. "I can assure you that the Rays are listening to theirs.
"If you attorney conclude that this a win-win, there is no risk, conclude that this could break the stalemate, then I say go for it," Foster said. "But listen to your attorneys."
Gerdes was not buying the argument that the city is in the best position.
"I agree that we are in the best negotiation position today that we could be in," Gerdes said. "The problem is, it was better yesterday and it was better a year ago.
"The faster we approach 2027, from the Rays' point of view, freedom is nearing. They can go wherever they want," Gerdes added. "Tampa, or any other list of cities that maybe they throw around. But as the approach 2027, the value of the franchise goes up because freedom is a coming. The harder we push not to let them talk to anybody, the more we drive them to that position."
Wolfe, Foster and city officials said Thursday that despite the 4-4 failed vote to further explore the proposal, the legal staff would still look into Gerdes' amendment.
What Will the Future Hold?
Foster said he would continue to reach out to the Rays. He, and Kennedy, said they continue to be skeptical of the Rays' motivations.
Kennedy said Darryl LeClair and CityScape put forward a worthwhile presentation to build a stadium in the Gateway/Carillon area near Feather Sound. The Rays, Kennedy said, refused.
"That to me, is an important statement," Kennedy said. "They were not binding themselves to anything, not costing themselves the money. That’s all been done for them.
"The fact that they refuse an option like that when they still have 15 years on their use agreement may indicate that their objective isn't another county," Kennedy said. "If the Rays are really interested, than I request them to accept CityScape's invitation. Talk with Mr. LeClair and his group and then come back with why that is not feasible."
Gerdes said the city needs to be prideful of St. Pete going forward.
"We are stewards of the bold vision and courage our predecessors had to even think St. Petersburg was a major league city," Gerdes said. "Beyond believing, they dared to act upon that belief to the disagreement and contrariness of the media."
Council chair Karl Nurse said playing defense and not talking with the Rays could lead to a result that no one in Tampa Bay wants.
"We have to find a way to get the conversation started," Nurse said. "If we don’t start a conversation, the end result will be at the end of the lease, the Rays will leave."