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The Rays, A Stadium and the St. Pete Mayoral Election

 

DISCLAIMER:  If you are someone who believes that the Rays do not need a new stadium in order to remain competitive, stop reading this article right now.  All of the presentation and analysis in the following article presupposes that the Rays require a new stadium in order to solidify their long-term position as a competitor in the American League East.  There are credible arguments refuting this proposition, but those arguments are given no space in the following paragraphs.

 

            For those readers who live in the Tampa Bay area, you may be at least vaguely familiar with the fact that the city of St. Petersburg is currently conducting a primary election for its next mayor.  The primary election will be concluded on September 1st, and the general election will be held on November 3rd.  Outgoing mayor Rick Baker is term-limited out of office and as a result, after 8 years, the city of St. Petersburg will have a new chief officer.  In normal times, it is essential for a sports team to have a good working relationship with the mayor’s office of the team’s home city.  Services such as public transportation, security and parking are typically provided at least in part through the mayor’s office (meaning that in some instances the city will provide the security or will help facilitate overflow parking or coordinate public transportation schedules).  Having an ally in the mayor’s office then, as the Rays have had in Mayor Baker, can go a long way towards the successful operation of a franchise.

 

            The stakes are higher than normal right now (which is why I am writing this article).  Because the Rays need a new stadium in order to survive in this market (if you disagree, please go back to the Disclaimer at the top of this page and re-read), the relationship with the next mayor of St. Petersburg will be the single most important relationship for the team in that quest for a new facility.  There are three primary ways in which a positive relationship with the mayor will benefit the Rays ability to secure a new facility: 1) securing of public finance; 2) determining the future of the operating covenant with St. Pete; and 3) generating public support for the Rays’ new stadium. (Continues after the Jump)

           A new stadium will require the use of public dollars.  "Public dollars" means money pledged from the State of Florida, the county in which the stadium is ultimately located (probably Pinellas or Hillsborough) and the city in which the stadium is ultimately located (St. Petersburg or Tampa are two possible candidates).  The county commissions of Pinellas and Hillsborough are the entities responsible for allocating county dollars and state funding will likely come from the governor’s office or from already allocated sources of revenue.  For the city dollars, however, an individual city council is responsible for allocating city money, and these allocations are often made with the input and discussion of the mayor.  An allied mayor can help shepherd the team through the lengthy and costly process of authorizing the use of public city dollars.  This is especially true in the case of the Rays because of the fact that the existing financing structure for the Trop will remain in place until 2016 and any new city debt will need to take into consideration the repayment of the existing obligations.  This aspect of the Rays’ relationship with the City of St. Petersburg – that there is existing debt still in place for the Trop – ensures that the mayor will wield significant influence in creating city financing structures for any new stadium.[i]

            The second area of importance for the new mayor with regard to the Rays is the operating covenant.  The Rays currently have an operating agreement with the City of St. Petersburg that runs through 2027.  What this means is that the Rays are contractually obligated to play their home baseball games within the boundaries of the City of St. Petersburg for 18 more years – an obligation that is commonly referred to as the "Operating Covenant" between the Rays and the City of St. Petersburg.  The Operating Covenant does not permit the Rays to play elsewhere in Pinellas County; the operation of the baseball team must be within the boundaries of the City of St. Petersburg.  As the chief executive of St. Petersburg, the next mayor is probably the only individual person (City Council excepted) who has authority to spearhead an effort modify or terminate the Operating Covenant.  So, if the determination is made that the best site for a new Rays stadium is somewhere outside of the boundaries of the City of St. Petersburg, the next mayor could have a pivotal role, if not the exclusive role, in determining whether or not the Operating Covenant can be modified or broken.  Hypothetically, if the Rays determined that the best site for a new stadium is in downtown Tampa, the mayor of St. Petersburg would be left with three choices: 1) enforce the Operating Covenant by filing a lawsuit against the Rays; 2) attempt to negotiate a settlement with the Rays for the amount of damages caused by the Rays leaving St. Petersburg; or 3) let the Rays break the Operating Covenant without payment of damages.  Clearly, option #3 is unlikely and option #1 is the worst case scenario.  Therefore, option #2 seems like the best-case scenario and, not surprisingly, the area in which the next mayor of St. Petersburg will have the most individual discretion. [ii]

            The third (and less tangible) reason why the next mayor is critical is public perception.  The next mayor can help sell the eventual stadium plan to the public at large in a way that Stu, Matt and the rest of the Rays cannot.  As a public official, the mayor has a built-in platform from which to help convince the citizens of St. Petersburg (and to a lesser extent, the citizens of Pinellas County) that the stadium plans suggested by the Rays are in the long-term interest of the community.[iii]  The public will always view the Rays ownership with some skepticism, rightly or wrongly, so there will be built-in animosity towards whatever stadium plan is ultimately adopted.  However, the support of the next mayor, particularly if the new stadium site is outside of the City of St. Petersburg, will go a long way towards dissipating some of the public anger that is sure to follow.[iv]

            So, this is the long-winded way of saying that the outcome of the St. Petersburg mayoral election could be the single-most important event in the years-long process of determining a new home for the Tampa Bay Rays.  For your entertainment pleasure, what follows is a breakdown of the public policy stances of each of the six most likely candidates regarding the future home of the Tampa Bay Rays[v].  This information was taken from the St. Petersburg Times website and represents direct quotes from each of the candidates, as presented during the editorial board review of the St. Pete Times.[vi]  My comments, and analysis, follow the text of each of the candidates.  I encourage you to vote (if you live in St. Petersburg) as every vote will count in this election.

 

Jaime Bennett[vii]:

Keeping baseball in St. Petersburg is a top priority.

To forge a winning resolution, the Mayor must understand how and why we got here. There’s just no substitute for reading the contracts, vetting the plans and knowing the issue inside and out. Simply put: it’s not an issue any Mayor can solve simply by wanting to fix it – especially a Mayor who has to learn the history of the issue after taking office.

Two points will guide my actions and efforts to keep baseball in St. Petersburg. First, the Rays are not the enemy. They are and must continue to be a partner in this process and a partner in the future of the city. Second, I am not opposed to a new home for the Rays in St. Petersburg and will work to make sure the Rays are the envy of baseball in their performance on the field and with the facilities they call home.

Our challenge is balancing the needs of the team with their existing commitments and our commitments to St. Petersburg tax payers who built Tropicana Field. On that side of the equation, I have three guiding principles. First, the next Mayor and council must retire the existing bonds issued for the current facility before new bonds can be issued for new facilities. Second, while I am open to exploring sites in St. Petersburg, I will not support locations outside the city. Finally, the process from negotiations to site selection to contracting must be open. Some parts may even require referendum – which I will campaign for and support as I supported the referendum to keep our airport which passed with 72% of the vote.

Let me also add my preference for a stadium site which can be connected with commuter rail lines serving Tampa and Central Florida.

I believe a resolution is possible that will afford the Rays the facilities they desire, protect the tax payer, keep baseball in St. Petersburg. The process won’t be easy or swift – it has never been in other major league cities. But it is possible and I am committed to it as a Council Member and will be as Mayor.

Analysis:  Candidate Bennett has the stated intention of remaining an ally of the Rays and draws on his history with the team as a City Council member.  This commitment, however, exists only if the Rays keep the team in St. Petersburg, although not necessarily at the current site.

Kathleen Ford[viii]:

The City has an agreement with the Rays. The City Charter states that it is the Mayor's obligation to enforce all city contracts. Thus, if the Rays' owners want a new stadium, the Rays need City Council approval before the Mayor can legally discuss this issue. The City has no need for a new stadium. Tropicana Field meets the City's obligation under the terms of the Stadium Use Agreement. If the Rays want a new stadium at the end of the lease agreement with the City, then the Rays can build and pay for their own stadium wherever they want as is their choice. In the event that the Rays seek any public funding or public assets, or the use of public assets then I would seek referendum approval of the voters prior to proposing it to City Council. The stadium is easy to access from Bradenton, Sarasota and Manatee from the south and Tampa, Wesley Chapel, Lutz, and new Tampa from the east. Thus, I do not want it built anywhere else than where it currently is.

Analysis:  If the Rays are not already scared of Kathleen Ford as mayor, they should be. She believes a new stadium cannot be built until after the expiration of the Operating Covenant (2027) and her belief that the Rays "can build and pay for their own stadium" reflects a lack of understanding of the relationship between municipalities and sports teams.

Bill Foster[ix]:

I am fully aware of the desire of the Rays organization to have a new stadium, and equally aware of the respective economic impacts 1) for the owners with the construction of a new stadium, and 2) to the City by having a major league baseball team in St. Petersburg. Historically, in the late 80's and early 90's, I was a part of a team that sold seat deposits, and lobbied for the expansion of MLB to St. Petersburg. After a great effort, and many heartaches, we finally succeeded. With all of the community effort it took to get the team, we must exert as much, if not more, effort to keep this team in St. Petersburg. I will take a leadership role with our "partners and stakeholders" (our Citizens, Rays, MLB, Florida, Pinellas), to negotiate the use agreement of a new facility located in St. Petersburg, with construction beginning sometime after 2015, which encompasses all 85+ acres of the Trop site. Whatever the use and financing terms, it must be such that passes the muster of our citizen who may be asked to pay a portion of the bills. My terms: 1) approved by voter referendum; 2) construction to begin after 2015 (when the property is free and clear); 3) little taxpayer burden, with primary financing by the Rays, TDC, and bonds secured by revenues; and 4) constructed at existing Trop site. If we all do our jobs equitably and correctly, it should pass a vote by our citizens, but timing, location, design, and financing are critical elements.

Analysis: Candidate Foster’s plan contains more concrete details than any other and his history with Tropicana underscores a complete understanding of the issues.  He is committed to keeping baseball at the current site, which the Rays and the ABC Committee have determined is no longer feasible.  His statements regarding a potential financing structure are realistic and well balanced.

Deveron Gibbons[x]:

I believe retaining baseball is critically important to the city of St. Petersburg. It is an economic driver for our local businesses, a means of uniting our community and an enormous branding opportunity for the city. I want to retain baseball in St. Petersburg and will work vigorously to do so.

Specifically:

1. St. Petersburg’s waterfront is NOT the appropriate location for a new stadium, yet I do believe there are other viable locations within the city where the team can locate and thrive. I will work with all interested parties – the Rays, the business community, the ABC Baseball Committee, citizens groups, and baseball fans to identify a location that meets the team’s needs and those of the city.

2. If the team leaves the dome area, I believe that we must find a realistic and meaningful way to support the economy of that area of the city, whether that is a mixed use development as the team’s owner has proposed, a green energy facility as some have argued or another use. A vibrant use of that area of the city is critical to the city’s wellbeing.

3. I am opposed any new taxes. For this reason, I believe that if public money is used in any way – tax revenue or bond revenue – to construct a new stadium, the public must approve, by referendum, any expenditures related both to that new stadium and the infrastructure a new stadium would require.

 

Analysis:Candidate Gibbons would seemingly be a partner with the Rays if the team remains in St. Petersburg.  His statement rejects the waterfront as a location, but lacks specifics as to what other non-Trop sites may be feasible.  He indicates no new taxes will be used to build a new stadium and believes a referendum is needed to authorize any public money.  Because of the lack of details, it is difficult to discern his position.

 

Scott Wagman[xi]:

I believe that a strong case can be made for a new stadium. Tropicana Field is deficient in it's luxury suites, concourse configuration and concession contract terms. I suspect that it's air conditioning system is grossly inefficient and in need of replacement. The fabric roof has bullet holes in it(!). It is true that they meant to paint the exterior but ran out of budget and the color scheme would have looked better than Creme du Concrete, but, it is what it is. I seriously doubt that a renovation is practical. This city, county, beaches and even the state has to decide if it wants to be viewed as a big league, sophisticated destination to not just vacation at, but to live, learn, work and retire in. I think it took too much risk and investment to not embrace the Rays with enthusiasm. That said, I think that we are going to have to negotiate a very complex, difficult and politically risky deal that has the potential to upset many citizen and even be less than ideal for the Rays. I think that the Rays will have to commit to a significant portion of the cost of the stadium, or, in return for a lower contribution, to cede a portion of ownership or profit share to the City. If we provide capital, we could reasonably ask for a portion of the profits, especially upon a sale of the team. Another item is that I question the need for a retractable roof. It was mentioned that the proposed glass retractable roof for a Tropicana renovation would cost $200MM of the $470MM tab. Would the Rays actually open the roof in the months of May-September? That MLB has decreed that baseball was meant to be played in the open air does not motivate me to agree to spending $200MM for a sunroof that may be used 3-6 times per year. I would strike a conciliatory tone over the next 2-3 years to engender the cooperation that we would need between ALL parties that will be involved in financing a new stadium. Bond financing will be a given, in what form I cannot say. I would prefer that the stadium be built on the existing Tropicana site, closer to 1st Av S. and have it tied into a future TBARTA stop. Parking and infrastructure is in place and this site could be much more effectively tied into the heart of Downtown. In 10 years, I see a dramatically different and developed area from 10th St to Beach Drive. The next Mayor must have significant experience in high level, contentious and complex negotiations.

Analysis:Candidate Wagman’s identification of the issues seems to dovetail with what the Rays have publicly said are the deficiencies with the current facility. Wagman’s statement that the stadium deal will be "difficult and politically risky" is perhaps a nod to the fact that the stadium won’t be built in St. Petersburg.  Along with Candidate Foster, Wagman offers the most details of any candidate and Wagman is only candidate to acknowledge how needed, but difficult, a new stadium deal will be.

Larry Williams[xii]:

There needs to be a new approach from the Mayor's office. I would aggressively reach out to all of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and other cities within a two hour drive time to Tropicana Field. This team is their team too. It is my contention that the best position for the City be in, in the event a new stadium is needed, is to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg, and to demonstrate to the ownership that St. Petersburg is a major league city and can support the team. Yes, I would support a new stadium, if a new stadium is necessary to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg. Why? I believe that Major League Baseball provides a real 'economic driver' to St. Petersburg, that is critically important to the future of our city. I have previously provided a document detailing what I believe, "baseball does for St. Petersburg" and why it is important that baseball stay in St. Petersburg. How to pay? I would solicit all potential funding sources and yes the city would have to participate, however, I do believe the city's position is strengthened by showing support of the team now.

If a new stadium is necessary, I would very seriously consider investigating that the area adjacent to the stadium, be a family destination. This type venue could play a significant role in minimizing tax payers funds for a new stadium. Where to build? #1 Tropicana Field renovation; #2 Tropicana site. Should a new stadium become a needed reality, the Tropicana site would be suitable for the new stadium and the 'family destination' scenario.

Analysis:Candidate Williams understands the positive externalities associated with having a professional baseball team in the area.   Interestingly, he also is the only candidate that specifically mentions other municipalities and their involvement in keeping the team in St. Petersburg a potential sign that he would be open to other sites.  However, his priority list at the end of his statement identifies Tropicana (renovation or new) as the preferred site.

FOOTNOTES:

[i]Of course, any financing plan for a stadium built with St. Petersburg dollars would need to be approved by the St. Petersburg City Council (including the vote of the mayor, who has a seat on City Council).  The mayor’s ability to steer the Rays through what is a hugely political process would be an invaluable help in the quest for a new stadium.

[ii] In my opinion, this point right here – the termination or modification of the Operating Covenant is perhaps the most political of all of the issues involved.  If the Rays moved to another municipality, whether Carrillon, Tampa or somewhere else in Hillsborough before 2027, the Rays would almost surely have to pay an enormous sum of money as damages for breaking the Operating Covenant.  Nobody really knows what this amount would actually be, but my best guess would probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million, at the very least.  So, whenever you hear people talking about the cost of a new stadium, if that stadium is not in the City of St. Petersburg, don’t forget in the back of your mind to factor in the cost of breaking the Operating Covenant.

[iii]This paragraph assumes that the stadium will be located in St. Petersburg and/or Pinellas County.  I would argue, though, that the central point – that the mayor can influence the public perception of the Rays’ plan – holds true if the Rays decide to move the team to Tampa.  It’s just that in the case of the Rays’ moving to Tampa, the St. Petersburg mayor would become an enemy and not an ally of the team.  In either situation, the influence of the mayor remains.

[iv] This is an interesting situation.  I would argue that the best that the Rays can hope for, if the team moves out of St. Petersburg, is silence from the next mayor.  From a realpolitik standpoint, any mayor, particularly if they are in a re-election cycle, will never come out and feverishly support the move of a professional sports team out of their jurisdiction.  This would have disastrous public consequences.  However, if the mayor remains silent, and does not wage a protracted legal battle with the Rays in order to enforce the Operating Covenant, that could be the best-case scenario for the Rays.

[v] Because it is impossible to fully present all of the relevant details, below is the campaign websites for each of the candidates discussed. Candidates’ policy stances will change, especially after the primary, so check these sites for more information.  Jamie Bennett(www.onestpetersburg.com); Kathleen Ford (www.kathleenford.com); Bill Foster (www.billfosterformayor.com); Deveron Gibbons (www.gibbonsformayor.com); Scott Wagman (www.scottwagman.com); Larry Williams (www.larrywilliamsformayor.com)

[vi] I decided to use these quotes, rather than piece-meal public statements, because I believe that these statements represent the most coherent and comprehensive of the candidates’ positions regarding the stadium.  In other forums, the candidates have been asked pointed questions, where the reported answers may or may not have been taken out of context.  The statements I have provided in this section represent the complete candidate position, as articulated by the candidates themselves, with no spin or filler.

[vii]http://elections.tampabay.com/candidate/jaime-bennett/

[viii]http://elections.tampabay.com/candidate/kathleen-ford/

[ix]http://elections.tampabay.com/candidate/bill-foster/

[x]http://elections.tampabay.com/candidate/deveron-gibbons/

[xi]http://elections.tampabay.com/candidate/scott-wagman/

[xii]http://elections.tampabay.com/candidate/larry-williams/

This post was written by a member of the DRaysBay community and does not necessarily express the views or opinions of DRaysBay staff.

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