City attorneys and the Rays apparently overcame one major hurdle — contractual language to protect St. Petersburg's legal position if things go awry.This seems to echo the frustrations of city council members this summer who said the Rays weren't willing to "pay to stray," as well as this blog's speculation on Aug 16.
They also fashioned a possible financial formula for an early exit: The team would pay to demolish Tropicana Field, plus compensate the city for every lost year of play up to 2027, when the Trop contract expires.
Negotiations halted before the two sides could agree on the amount of compensation. But at least at one point, several possible roadblocks had narrowed to one: cash.
St. Pete's mayor-elect, Rick Kriseman, who takes office on Jan. 2, has maintained the Rays would have to pay to explore Tampa stadium sites. Presumably, he would require a departure fee too, although we don't know if he will hold the same tough line that his predecessor, Bill Foster, has held.
Nohlgren also wrote that council members are increasingly intrigued by Tropicana Field re-development and the potential that 85 near-downtown acres hold. The Rays actually suggested this too, when VP Michael Kalt told Pinellas County commissioners in January that taxpayers are losing out by having baseball at Tropicana Field.
But it may not be the best argument for the Rays: its a far cry from the "$200 million-a-year economic engine" argument they used before, and if commercial or residential development is a better use of the Trop site...it would likely be a better use of space in rapidly-expanding and rapidly-appreciating downtown Tampa.
Councilmembers also told Nohlgren the fee the Rays would "pay to stray" was no longer an issue:
"(The Rays and St. Pete) were talking end-game type solutions — Trop demolition, payment for leaving early and possibly reimbursement for lost sales taxes, which were minor," (Councilman Charlie) Gerdes said.And an important passage on leverage:
"I was worried about (the city's legal position)," Gerdes said. "But Foster said we are comfortable now that we are covered. Both sides looked at the (contract) language and came up with a way'' to protect the city's rights.
The Rays have never overtly threatened to leave the Tampa Bay area. But the prospect of stadium offers from competing regions is growing less remote, said Craig Sher, a retired executive from St. Petersburg's Sembler development company. Sher served on a civic group that studied the stadium issue and maintains close ties to Foster and Kriseman.Of course, its part of the standard stadium subsidy blueprint. And while the Rays lose a bit of leverage if they acknowledge they are only considering Tampa stadium sites, there's still a tug-of-war going on. Would Tampa spend enough to move the Rays away from St. Pete before 2027?
By contract, the Rays cannot negotiate any deal to play anywhere else through 2027. But legally, they could talk right now to, say Charlotte, N.C., or Montreal, about building a new stadium there that would be ready for a 2028 opening.
The actual target date could come much sooner, Sher said, because a suitor city could offer to buy additional years off the Trop contract.
Would $50 million, for example, entice the city to allow a 2022 exit if fans knew their team was leaving in 2028 for sure?
A national stadium search would be a messy, last resort strategy for the Rays. It would alienate fans with no certain prospect of success. But an open-air stadium in another city would be $150 million or so cheaper than a roofed stadium in Tampa Bay. That edge alone could provide cash for a Trop buyout.
If nothing else, letting competing cities creep into the equation increases the Rays' leverage during negotiations here, Sher noted. The team will pay a chunk of construction costs, but their options elsewhere will help determine how much.
"I think the Tampa Bay area needs to be out of the ground'' with a new stadium "by the first quarter of 2018 for an opening day in 2020,'' Sher said.
If the Rays reach 2018 with no stadium in sight, he said, "they might as well wait and explore what other cities can offer.''