St. Petersburg City Council votes against the Rays stadium contract amendment

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

The stalemate continues.

The St. Petersburg City Council convened this morning with a glaring item on its agenda, a proposal to amend the city's contract with the Tampa Bay Rays.

The amendment finally made its way to the floor at 1:30 this afternoon, and Councilman Charlie Gerdes - sponsor of the proposed amendment - opened the discussion. If you put yourself in [the Rays] shoes, you can understand why they'd [want to leave]," Gerdes began. "I'm not being judgmental about the stalemate... the only thing I'm being judgmental about is, ‘How do we break [it]?'"

The proposed amendment for an "exploratory fee" of $1.42M would allow the Rays to look outside of Pinellas County for a new stadium location, something currently prohibited in the contract for Tropicana Field. However, should the Rays desire to move, the amendment would not permit relocation. "If the Rays decide they want to leave the Trop early," Gerdes stated, "they'd need to come back and negotiate again."

Councilman Gerdes, an attorney by trade, called for his fellow councilmembers to not be afraid of holding sites in Pinellas County up against those in Hillsborough. "We should play offense; we should beat our chests about how great a place St. Pete is to play!" The St. Petersburg region has its benefits in cost, ease of contract negotiations, and traffic flow for the Bay area - but should the Rays truly want to relocate, according to Gerdes, standing in the way could be detrimental.

He invoked the wisdom of letting the Rays move to another county, simply if it meant the team could stay in the Tampa Bay area. Showing a level headed perspective, Gerdes reminded the Council that if the Rays move "across the Gandy or the Howard Franklin...my grandkids would [still] be able to go to games." His focus was squarely set on the benefit of the whole region, and not just his city or his county.

To Gerdes, the possibility of losing the Rays to another part of the country is a very real threat.

***

John Wolfe, the city's attorney addressing the City Council in opposition to the proposed amendment. He called the document "well crafted", but rightfully warned that the city could lose leverage in future negotiations. He claimed the Rays could use the amendment to help them file in bankruptcy court, a decided advantage in contract negotiations that does not require true fiscal bankruptcy, and that the city is already in the best position for negotiations possible. Anything done to detract from that position would only weaken the city's legal leverage.

Wolfe cautioned the council that anything said on record in favor of the Rays being able to relocate would surely be used against them later, and asked the Council to defer their decision by 6-8 weeks for a legal review.

In response, Councilman Jim Kennedy sided with the attorney, claiming the proposal was not in the best interest of the city or its residents. He agreed that discussions should be held privately, as to not air out the council's legal strategies.

It was here Councilman Jeff Danner suggested that allowing the Rays to explore stadium location options will show just how valuable remaining at Tropicana Field would be. The Rays are prone to being fiscally responsible, and Danner claimed a new stadium would cost well over $600M.

Danner has 28 years of experience in the construction industry, all of which have been in Pinellas County.

He went on to say that one does not need to amend a lease to analyze the cost of financing stadiums, or how horrible traffic on the Howard Franklin Bridge can be. He proposed the City Council reconvene the ABC Coalition, which studied the region's unemployment, transit, and the logistics of stadium financing. It was the ABC Coalition that led to the Carillon Stadium proposal by CityScape, which called for the Rays to relocate to the Gateway region, where Pinellas and I-275 meet.

Mayor Bill Foster began his address to the Council by reiterating his position was "abundantly clear." He called the Gerdes amendment "thoughtful" and "reasonable", but identified four key misunderstandings - or fallacies - within the proposed amendment:

1. "The city's contract with the Rays is a "use agreement," not a "lease"."

2. "The impact for taxpayers will cease after 2016 when the bonds on Tropicana Field are paid off."

3. "Every year that St. Pete waits, it lessens its ability to negotiate."

4. "The fiduciary duty of the Council is to the Rays first, then the region, then to the citizens of St. Petersburg."

Foster would like you to know that each of these items is completely false.

The most basic position to take, in Mayor Foster's eyes, is to keep baseball in St. Petersburg. "Every year we wait is another year of baseball in St. Pete," Foster reminded the Council. "You're getting expert legal advice from column-writers and sports hosts on the radio. Don't do it." Instead of "vaporizing" their contract, Foster claimed the Rays should be studying building a new stadium for 2028.

Foster then made a new claim, that if the Rays Stadium Saga is truly about money, they would need to open their books to prove it. He even asked that if the amendment comes to pass, that it be coupled with a stipulation for the Rays to reveal their financial position. Foster also backed the recommendation to wait 6-8 weeks for more legal counsel.

***

Other councilmembers made their thoughts known during the proceedings:

Councilman Steve Kornell, a social worker for the public school system, claimed that this problem was not really the Rays' problem, but Major League Baseball's. The argument is easy to understand. When a baseball team in a different market can land a $7B television contract, surely there is enough revenue in Baseball to help the Rays break their lease if it were truly necessary.

Flexing a misunderstanding of the relationship between the amount of time it takes to travel somewhere and an individual's incentive to make that journey, something covered by the ABC Coalition and our own study from 2011, Councilman Wengay Newton remarked, "We talk about 'regional assets,' but the region won't come over here and buy a ticket. You don't gain things as a region by moving things around in a region."

Meanwhile, councilwoman Leslie Curran, a local business owner in art and design, begged the Council to find a solution. "I just think we need to do something to move this forward." She claimed that if anything weakened the Council's legal position, it was releasing the Carillon plan before discussions were ready to move to that stage.

Councilman Kennedy rejoined the conversation on the Carillon proposal, reminding the Council that St. Petersburg put forth the Carillon proposal at a time when it was not required, but the Rays wanted nothing to do with it (presumably, for contract negotiation purposes). He remarked that if the Rays were unwilling to consider the Carillon proposal when there are 15 years remaining on their contract with the city, perhaps their objective isn't just about what county they are in. "We may be making the mistake of trying to negotiate when we don't have anyone talking back to us."

Vice Chair of the Council Bill Dudley had a tone of disappointment in regards to the situation. He too claimed the city has repeatedly reached out to the Rays front office, but that their efforts have been consistently ignored. If the Rays want to talk, from here forward it should be their initiative.

Interestingly, Dudley seemed further jaded that the Rays have not done more to correct national media when reports claim they are from Tampa. He also called the Rays' previous claim that only 300 season ticketholder accounts came from St. Petersburg misleading.

Dudley called the Rays' front office "nice people", but reminded the Council they are merely businessmen. He failed to mention, however, the previous cooperation of the front office and the city on the waterfront stadium proposal of 2008, which died after city politics turned sour and led the council to terminate negotiations.

Toward the end of the discussion, Council Chair Karl Nurse, who had publicly supported any attempts to move the situation forward, called for a "contract workshop" to be held. He also wanted to know if the Rays were open to a "finder's fee" amendment in order to research the idea.

Nurse was not optimistic about the immediate results of these Council meetings. "These conversations hurt attendance," he claimed, "it feels a bit like a 'jilted lover' kind of thing." True to this sentiment, the Rays were not in attendance at this meeting.

***

Gerdes was not deterred by the negative opinions of his amendment. He pleaded with the Council to ignore Mayor Foster's stonewalling tactics, and to take the discussion to the next level by allowing the Rays freedom to explore the bay area. He claimed the relationship with the Rays is in need of repair, implying that his amendment is an excellent first step towards reconciliation.

Councilman Gerdes called on the board to approve his amendment, but now with an added concession: a 30-day grace period for legal review, to ensure the amendment protected the position of the city. He argued that the revenue from the $1.42M fee would help support jobs, kids, and employees in the region.

In the end, the vote required a majority of the eight member Council, and it failed on a vote of 4-4.

Councilmembers Curran, Gerdes, Newton and Nurse voted for the amendment; members Danner, Dudley, Kennedy, and Kornell voted against.

Thanks to Noah Pransky, of Channel 10 News, for all quotations. Visit his site Shadow of the Stadium for more information on the Rays stadium saga.

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