It was fitting that Mayor Rick Kriseman held a news conference to address the latest uproar over the Tampa Bay Rays in the city’s new police station.
He played both roles in a “good cop-bad cop” scenario involving discussions with the Major League Baseball team.
Kriseman gave a firm no to the idea that the Rays might play half their home games in Montreal. The agreement between the Rays and the city for the use of Tropicana Field bars the team from looking elsewhere before 2028 unless the city formally gives its OK, and Kriseman said he has no intention of doing that.
But Kriseman said he is keeping his door open to partnering with the team on funding a new stadium in St. Pete.
“I am ready to sit down with the team to have serious discussions about the financing of a stadium with a full-time team here in St. Petersburg,” Kriseman said. “I am also ready to begin the process of redeveloping the Tropicana Field site, with or without plans for a new stadium, at the end of the summer.”
Those two issues – stadium funding and the use of 85 acres in a prime location – are at the heart of the city’s approach to negotiations with the Rays. Other factors – including the Rays’ announcement that Major League Baseball has given the team permission to explore the possibility of playing a split-season schedule between St. Petersburg and Montreal — are just “gamesmanship,” Kriseman said.
“When you start looking at cities around the country who have had issues with stadiums, there is a playbook and this is part of the game. Ultimately, at some point, we need an end to the game. Let’s sit down and talk about the future of the franchise and if it’s going to be here, let’s have those discussions,” Kriseman said.
Money would be a key issue in those discussions.
While taxpayer-funded sports stadiums generally have fallen out of favor, there is some public funding available for a stadium in Pinellas County through the tourist development tax or “bed tax,” a 6 percent tax collected on accommodations in the county rented for less than six months. The proceeds from that tax fund tourism marketing, and also can go to beach nourishment or construction for stadiums or museums, as well as reserves for emergencies.
“What I’ve also made very clear to them is from a stadium financing [perspective], we are prepared to be partners,” Kriseman said, then reinforced that by saying “partners” a second time. “There are some funds that are available currently that aren’t going to be there forever, through our tourist development tax dollars. If this continues on without a clear decision one way or the other, the ability to finance could become significantly more difficult.”
Under the current agreement with the Rays, the team would be entitled to half of the development rights at the Trop site, provided they stay in St. Petersburg. That could be very lucrative, under either of the two conceptual master plans for the Tropicana Field site.
Kriseman said he’s still expecting to hear from the Rays on whether they will stay in St. Petersburg by the end of the summer.
What if the Rays ignore the use agreement with the city and explore a shared season anyway? “If that’s the direction they start to go we’ll have to have those discussions between our legal teams very quickly, but my hope is that’s not something that’s happens,” he said.
He also reiterated comments first reported last week by the St. Pete Catalyst. He’s confident that planned improvement in transportation options will make it easier for people to get to the games in St. Pete and boost what has been low attendance.
“If we’re talking about the future of the team, let’s talk about the future of the team in this region. And if you’re talking about the future you can’t keep looking at the past, or even the present. You have to keep looking at the future,” Kriseman said. “All you have to do is look at the changes happening in St. Pete — the growth that’s happening, the economic development occurring in this city, along with the transportation changes that are on the books that will impact the ability of people to get from Hillsborough County and from Pasco County here. I think the future is rosy. I’m bullish on it.”
But it’s a two-way street, Kriseman warned.
“It’s hard to ask fans, it’s hard to ask businesses to be all in and fully commit to the team, when the team hasn’t fully committed to us. Make a decision,” he said. “If you’re going to stay here, especially if we negotiate and have a deal in place to build a new stadium, I suspect you see a change. I suspect you see more fans coming to the game. I suspect you see more corporate support stepping up, on both sides of the bay. But without that certainty, after 12 years, I think there’s a certain amount of fatigue that has set in and it’s not unreasonable.”
Kriseman’s strong words for the team’s owners didn’t extend to the players. The Rays have a 43-32 record this season and are in second place in the American League East, four-and-a-half games behind the New York Yankees.
“Go to the games for the players. The players deserve your attendance. They deserve your support. They’re giving you their all every day. Whether you like or agree with what ownership has said or is doing or is proposing, you should go to the games to support the players,” Kriseman said.