St. Pete officials argue confusingly about whether to offer Rays owner stadium money before he asks for it

The Tampa Bay Times has a long record of really terrible, boosterish reporting (plus conflicts of interest) on the push for a new Rays stadium, and this article doesn’t exactly help raise the bar. It’s ostensibly about how two St. Petersburg city officials have different thoughts on whether the city should tell Rays owner Stuart Sternberg how much they’re willing to put up toward a new stadium, or wait for Sternberg to figure out how much he wants to ask for:

City Council member Charlie Gerdes wants clarity, and believes it would be prudent for city, county and state officials to come up with the amount of public money that could be available to help fund a new St. Petersburg ballpark.

Gerdes hopes that will make it easier for the Rays to stay — or at least decide their future sooner.

“We need to go to them,” Gerdes said. “I think we all need to be able to look each other in the face and say ‘we did everything we could’’’ in the event the team decides to leave.

Others believe the Rays must make the first move.

“If they aren’t interested in ever pursuing a new stadium, there there’s no need to start convening all the other folks together and saying ‘what do we think we can realistically come up with,’” Mayor Rick Kriseman said.

Now, I know that the Times is just reporting what Gerdes and Kriseman are saying, but reporter Josh Solomon really should be pointing out that neither of these arguments entirely makes sense. Especially Gerdes’s: Offering Sternberg a set stack of dollar bills isn’t going to “make it easier for the Rays to stay,” unless maybe you think you’re going to so massively overbid that it’s an offer he can’t refuse — which presumably isn’t what Gerdes is trying to say? Or not say out loud, at least?

Kriseman’s response, meanwhile, is just a little garbled — clearly Sternberg wants a new stadium — though he is right to point out that it is a little weird to start offering the Rays owner public cash for a plan that he hasn’t even expressed an interest in.

Really, the mistake here is in St. Petersburg officials considering the Rays stadium situation to be the public’s problem at all: The city gave Sternberg an opt-out to go build a stadium elsewhere in the region if he wanted, and he couldn’t find anyone to give him the amount of money that he wanted, so he didn’t do it. Which is all fine, but it doesn’t make it St. Petersburg’s crisis.

The subtext of all this — which, to be fair, Solomon does spell out — is that St. Petersburg would like to redevelop the Tropicana Field site, which it can’t do until the Rays move out, so it can’t start planning until it knows what Sternberg will do. Except, you know, that the Rays’ lease expires in 2027, and they’re almost certainly not getting a stadium built much before that, so if Kriseman really wants to start planning a new development there he can just send Sternberg a “you’re evicted in eight years” notice, and everybody can plan just fine. Except Sternberg, but that’s not St. Petersburg’s problem — unless you think keeping the Rays is more important than redeveloping the stadium site, which seems to be not the point of this article?

Maybe it’s just the editor in me, but reading this suggests an entirely different, better article that would have begun by analyzing the situation the city of St. Pete is in: salivating over the stadium land, but also not wanting to be accused of driving the Rays out of the region. (It kind of heads in that direction, but then veers off and never quite makes it back.) Which is indeed a dilemma! And then you could ask Gerdes and Kriseman and other local officials what they think the city’s priority should be, and how much it would be worth to St. Pete to clear the stadium off of that land, and whether it’s better to build sooner or wait until the Rays have left and are no longer entitled to a cut of redevelopment rights, and suddenly you have a story where readers actually learn something more than just “city officials yell past each other.” I know it’s 2019 and that’s not how most journalism works anymore, but I really don’t think I’m asking that much, am I?

12 comments on “St. Pete officials argue confusingly about whether to offer Rays owner stadium money before he asks for it

  1. Was it really better in the past journalism wise? On the one hand standards do seem to have fallen. On the other hand in the 90s the big papers where I grew up all had reporting just this terrible on economic development and if you wanted actual analysis and cynicism (always valuable when handing out huge stacks of cash to developers of any type), you had to turn to the alternative weeklie. They obviously have their own weaknesses and sensibilities, but could at least be trusted to not have pre bought whatever the mayor and the monies class was selling like the big papers.

    I don’t know I have always found 3/4s of journalists to be complete frauds, maybe it’s just up to 7/8s today so it just doesn’t look that different to me?

    • The alt-weeklies helped keep the dailies honest, though, and pushed them to do more critical reporting. As did competition among dailies back when you still had more than one daily in most cities.

      There’s always been lots of lazy and/or unthinking journalism, sure. But I think the degree of “just get some quotes and slap it on the web” that we’re seeing now is above and beyond what we saw 20 years ago, because even the reporters who might be inclined to ask some questions don’t have time to do so.

  2. So I’m curious about a couple of things:

    1) what is this redevelopment they keep thinking is going to be so awesome?

    2) If its going to be so great why restrict the Rays from leaving? Just let them go now

    3) If they are planning to sell the land to a private developer why not sell the land and stadium now and make the Rays the developers problem?

    • Answer to #3 is “if they redevelop the land while the Rays are still at the Trop, Sternberg gets a cut.”

      • They could sell it and let the new developer worry about working out a deal with the Rays couldn’t they?

        • I believe if they do that, the Rays get a cut of the sale price. But I need to double-check the lease language.

  3. I would suggest the best course of action for the city/county right now would be to do nothing at all. With 8 years still to run on the lease, it’s probably too early to give notice that the lease will not be renewed come 2027… there’s nothing really wrong with giving such notice, but it likely wouldn’t be received well by the professional sporting “ownership” community as a whole (who cares) and would ruin the day of the relatively small number of fans who routinely support the Rays and really hope that something else can be done to ‘save’ the money making club from the confounding fate of continuing to turn a significant profit while spending very little on players to play in front of small crowds and occasionally competing for championships.

    It seems that neither the city or county can engage in serious negotiations (much less sign deals related to) for redevelopment of even the parking areas at this time without having to pay the Rays… so the logical course of action is simply to do nothing.

    If the Rays can get a deal somewhere else in the district before 2023/24 and can start building a new stadium, more power to them. If they cannot, then they play out the string at the Trop (more or less what they’ve been doing since Sternberg bought them) and Pinellas county advises them in 2025 that they will not entertain an application to renew or extend the lease.

    No matter what happens, the Rays are the ones who should be worrying about a ticking clock, not the county and certainly not the city. It may be that everyone involved (barring the 15k fans who turn up regularly) would be better off if the lessor/lessee relationship was dissolved and both sides move on.

    If the Rays want to negotiate with other parties to host them (outside of TSP) come 2025, then it would only be reasonable that in allowing them to do that, the city/county gain the rights to sign agreements to redevelop the site prior to 2027 in exchange. Failing that, the Rays can remain bound by the lease requirement that they not discuss moving or stadium building with anyone outside the region prior to lease expiry just as they city and county are currently bound by restrictions on redevelopment rights.

    What could be fairer?

    • And really, even if you think the city needs to start “planning,” there’s nothing stopping it from drawing up tentative redevelopment plans for the Trop site. They can even do one with and one without room for a stadium, if they want. I doubt the extra set of renderings would be prohibitively expensive, certainly not compared to the public price tag on a stadium.

      • Guess what? that’s exactly what St. Pete’s been doing.

        • So why is Gerdes complaining that they can’t do it until they work things out with the Rays?

          • I suppose it’s because they can’t do anything physically without giving Sternberg a cut. That would be even more irritating because the Rays could have done something during the last 20 years to redevelop the site around the dome and they’ve done squat.

        • A concept plan (with or without a ballpark) likely does not meet the standard for “negotiating” for commercial development of the property, anymore than someone at city hall drawing a picture of a park over one of the parking lots would.

          As I understand it, the city (or the Rays) are free to dream, draw or wish anything (as I recall the Rays issued a concept of a retractable roof stadium some years ago). What neither party can do is enter into actual contractual agreements regarding the present site (or other sites, in the case of the Rays) without violating the lease agreement.

          I’m not sure where a court would draw the line on what is and isn’t a violation… but then, that’s what civil courts are for…