St. Pete council still not willing to let Rays go for cheap, local paper decries this as “stalemate”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said yesterday that he still doesn’t have the votes to pass the bill the city council rejected in December that would have let the Tampa Bay Rays look elsewhere for a stadium site in exchange for a sliding scale of buyout payments, depending on when the team left. This is unsurprising, though it’s slightly surprising that Kriseman was willing to propose having the Rays give up any proceeds from redeveloping the Tropicana Field site — something Rays owner Stuart Sternberg had previously said he wouldn’t consider — and councilmembers still said no:

Kriseman’s proposal, which could earn the city as much as $20 million, inadequately compensates the city and county for what they have spent on the Trop over the years, [councilmember Steve] Kornell said. “I could not in good conscience vote for that deal.”

[Councilmember Bill] Dudley also said the proposed compensation payments are too low. “We’re just not getting enough,” he said, “and the vast majority of my constituents agree with me on this.”

In other words: We have a lease with you, and you have to live by it, and if you want to get out of it you have to pay our price or else lump it until 2027, pal.

That’s a perfectly reasonable negotiating position for the council to take, and thus makes it more than a bit screwy that the Tampa Bay Times chose to lead their article on this with the sentence: “Tampa Bay’s five-year stalemate over a new baseball stadium continues — with no obvious end in sight.” That implies that you have two sides trying to reach agreement on a shared goal, but which just can’t find a way to come to terms. What’s happening here is something different: Sternberg wants to break his lease and seek a new stadium elsewhere, and the St. Pete council is saying, “Not unless you make it worth our while.”

A more honest lede, then, would have been something along the lines of “The Tampa Bay Rays’ search for a way out of their Tropicana Field lease continues — but the St. Petersburg council isn’t going to let them go cheap.” But then, the Tampa Bay Times has a track record of trying to make St. Petersburg seem like it’s on the clock here, even when it isn’t.

Tampa pastor cleared of labor law violations in unpaid stadium job case

Tom Atchison, who you’ll remember as the “faith-based recovery program” director accused of illegally sending his substance-abuse clients to run stadium concessions for no pay as part of a job training program, writes to point out that a federal Department of Labor investigation cleared him of the “illegal” part last month. And he includes a (partly redacted) DoL report on the matter, if you want to read it yourself.

This is good news for Atchison, obviously, since it means his model of funding his programs by having people in recovery work stadium jobs and have the payments go to fund his overhead — something he says he copied from the Salvation Army — is officially sanctioned as legit. It’s less certainly good news for the people in his New Beginnings programs, depending on whether you see having them work jobs and have their residence director cash the resulting checks is a valuable way to ease them back into the work world, or a way to exploit their free labor to pay the program’s bills. Either way, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rays ended their relationship with New Beginnings after the controversy arose — presumably less because they were concerned it was illegal than because they were concerned it looked skeevy — so we can leave any future coverage of the matter to other worthy sites.

Rays threaten to move out of St. Pete the year that Malia Obama turns 30

Now’s here some quality clickbait, courtesy of the Tampa Bay Times (“Winner of 10 Pulitzer Prizes”!):

Rays owner vows stadium search by 2022, with or without St. Pete’s okay

Whoa, Stuart Sternberg is throwing down the gauntlet! He’s going to straight-up ignore his lease with St. Petersburg and, wait, why 2022?

Sternberg made his unusually frank comments in a question-and-answer session with the Tampa Bay Times while he was in town for an annual Fan Fest celebration…

Assuming it takes at least five years to build a new stadium, will you start a regional search without St. Petersburg’s permission by 2022?

Absolutely. Before that. I haven’t thought of a timetable, but five years is a minimum from the time you would start the process to when you would ring the bell.

So: The Tampa Bay Times asked Sternberg if, given that it would take a few years to build a stadium, and the Rays‘ lease is up after 2027, he’d start looking around for stadium sites a few years before then. And Sternberg said — wait for it! — yes, he would. Though given that, as Noah Pransky (yes, him again) points out, Sternberg can’t actually start negotiating with any other cities before 2028, as spelled out in that lease (which the St. Pete council is refusing to let him out of), he’d be limited to just looking. Which you have to figure he’s doing already anyway, right? So, not much of a story, probably the kind of thing you’d bury in the back—

They don’t make Pulitzer Prizes like they used to.

New MLB commish tries to shill for Rays, A’s stadiums, lacks Selig’s flair for crazy-ass threats

With everything else that’s been going on (like me getting ready to be on the teevee), I utterly failed to welcome new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who officially took over from commissioner-since-the-last-millennium Bud Selig last weekend. (Yes, he’s finally gone. Yes, you are now invited to dance a bit on his grave.) And Manfred immediately showed that he knows what his job is, chiming in about how the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays need new stadiums, and he’s gonna help them get ‘em, by gum:

“I share your view that Tampa and Oakland are situations that need to be addressed, and believe me I will be making myself available to both owners, both clubs to play whatever role they want me to play in helping them get their situations resolved because I do think both of them are really important to the game.”

I’d give that about a B-minus as commissioner rhetoric goes — it hits all the usual points (teams need new stadiums, the league will throw its weight around to help get them) but without the flair of his predecessor: It’s no “Don’t make me come in there,” that’s for sure. Manfred should know that the job of a blackmailer commissioner is to always include at least an implicit threat, to let cities know who’s boss and

“I think Montreal helped itself as a candidate for Major League Baseball with the Toronto games that they had up there last year. It’s hard to miss how many people showed up for those exhibition games. It was a strong showing. Montreal’s a great city. I think with the right set of circumstances and the right facility, it’s possible.”

Well, it’s a start, anyway.

Sternberg’s development rights on Trop could be worth as much as he’d pay St. Pete to break lease

When I reported Friday on the St. Petersburg city council refusing to go along with the Tampa Bay Rays‘ lease-breaking deal if they’d have to give Rays owner Stuart Sternberg a cut of development rights to the Tropicana Field site, I didn’t have a figure for how much those rights would be worth. Noah Pransky of Shadow of the Stadium did, however, and helpfully pointed it out:

When the team pitched a waterfront stadium in downtown St. Petersburg in 2008, a developer bid $65 million to buy the Trop property and load it up with $1.2 billion of mixed use construction. Property taxes and fees for the city were estimated at $7.5 million a year, with a like amount for county government and schools.

Okay, that’s 2008, and a lot has changed since then. Still, if we take that as a reasonable guesstimate of what the Trop property is worth, then giving half of that to Sternberg would be worth $32.5 million — or nearly as much as St. Pete would be getting from the Rays owner as a payment for breaking his lease. It’s starting to become clearer why this became a major sticking point — though when you consider that even $32.5 million is just equal to three years of James Loney and two of David DeJesus, it’s slightly possible that Sternberg got a bit greedy here.

St. Pete council calls Rays’ bluff, rejects lease buyout unless team coughs up development rights

If yesterday’s news had you thinking that city councils were just mindless automatons who would inevitably rubber-stamp any stadium deal set before them, then the St. Petersburg city council had a surprise for you: That body voted 5-3 yesterday afternoon to reject the proposed deal in which the Tampa Bay Rays could buy their way out of their Tropicana Field lease to move to a new stadium elsewhere in the bay area for a payment of at most $42 million.

Given that as recently as a week ago, all signs were that the council was going to approve the plan that Mayor Rick Kriseman had worked out with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, this was a bit of a shocker. But according to the Tampa Bay Times, Rays execs shot themselves in the foot with their answer to questions about whether the team would agree to forgo a split of profits from development of land on the 85-acre Tropicana Field site if they were in the process of leaving anyway:

Council member Darden Rice, who voted for the agreement, said the Rays blew the deal with their presentation.

“I think at one point we had five votes,” Rice said. “But I was very disappointed by Auld’s response to Karl Nurse’s question about development rights. It was either tone deafness or arrogance.”…

Nurse had asked Kriseman earlier in the week to change the agreement so the city could retain all development rights in that situation. But the Rays declined to make any substantive changes to Kriseman’s deal.

Nurse still voted for the deal in the end, but this did not go over well with several other members of the council:

[Councilmember Bill] Dudley said he felt like the Rays were making ultimatums. “I don’t like arrogance,” he said.

“The deal breaker for me was the idea that they want us to abide by the use agreement for redevelopment purposes, where they can benefit,” [councilmember Amy] Foster said, “but they didn’t want to abide by the use agreement” by staying at the Trop.

“This is a common strategy,” she said. “They use their mobility in order to threaten cities in order to get more.”

Yep, that they do. But in most cases they don’t have an ironclad lease like the one that the Rays are locked into in St. Pete, which currently doesn’t allow the team owners to buy their way out, or even talk about leaving, until 2027. That’s a hefty piece of leverage that the council has at its disposal, and they just used it.

For Sternberg, the logical next step in this situation is to haggle: If the council wants a bigger share of development rights, throw them a bigger share of development rights. Or kick in an extra million or two a year in lease-breaking payments. But it seems like the council isn’t opposed to the principle of the deal, just the specifics, so the usual strategy would be to pick off a couple of councilmembers and find out what their price is.

Sternberg, however, has already declared that he won’t negotiate any more changes to the lease buyout, saying last week, “If it doesn’t pass, we’re doomed to leave.” This kind of paints him into a corner, with his only obvious options being:

  • Try to pretend he never said anything about no further negotiations, and quietly resume talks in a few months. This would not only require swallowing a lot of pride at this point, but also leave him with a weakened negotiating position, since clearly his ultimatums wouldn’t be worth squat.
  • Sit tight and wait — if not 13 years, then at least for a new city council to be elected next fall. And then hope like crazy that the new folks are more willing to give you anything you want.
  • Sell the team and make it someone else’s problem. Forbes, which tends to underestimate team values, has the Rays worth $485 million, which would be a nifty 142% profit on what Sternberg bought them for in 2002. But presumably the Rays would be worth an awful lot more if they had a shiny new stadium to play in (especially if the shiny new stadium debt could be fobbed off on taxpayers), so Sternberg would be leaving a lot of hypothetical money on the hypothetical table if he took this route.
  • Call Bud Selig and ask him to threaten to blow up the team on his way out the door, and hope that the courts will protect them from the inevitable antitrust lawsuit that would result.

So far, the Rays have just responded with a generic “You’re a bunch of poopyheads” statement:

There’s still plenty of time — until 2027, really — for a deal to be worked out, so there’s no reason to start freaking out about the Rays moving to Montréal (unless you’re the Tampa Bay Times editorial board). The St. Peterburg council did send a message, though, that they’re at least aware that, as Jonah Keri puts it:

Public officials trying to negotiate better deals in the public interest. What’ll they think of next?

Rays vote pushed back, time of reckoning for how the hell to actually pay for stadium delayed one week

The St. Petersburg city council has pushed its vote on the Tampa Bay Rays lease modification back to next week, so that members can actually read the thing. Mayor Rick Kriseman readily agreed to the delay, as did Rays execs, so it looks like the Rays won’t be threatening to move to Montréal in the next week or anything. Things could change if the council tries to put up a fight, but it sounds like this is less a resistance move than just a “hang on, we need to find our reading glasses.”

Meanwhile, the indefatigable Noah Pransky has taken a look at what’s going to be the more important question going forward, which is how on earth to actually pay for a new stadium, whether it’s on the St. Pete side of the bay or the Tampa side. Pransky notes that the two cities’ chambers of commerce estimated back in 2012 that a stadium would take $300 million to $400 million in public money, and floated a bunch of different ideas for raising it: extend a sales tax surcharge for infrastructure improvements and redirect it to the stadium, raise the car rental tax, raise the hotel tax (note: possibly illegal under state law), kick back property taxes through a TIF district, kick back the local share of state sales taxes. Taken together these could certainly raise $400 million, but they’re also all money that could be used for other things, and once you spend it on a stadium, it’s gone.

So really it’s going to still come down to whether any government body in the Tampa region feels like handing over $300-400 million to the owner of the local baseball team, regardless of what particular tax revenue stream is allocated to it. Recent indications have not been positive, but the new agreement would give the Rays two years to announce an opt-out date from their Tropicana Field lease, which is … not plenty of time, but some time, anyway. Maybe someone will stumble upon a foolproof way to raise money before then.

Rays owner: If no new stadium, I’ll find a guy to take the team and go home with it, in 2027, yeah!

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg celebrated his new agreement with the city of St. Petersburg to allow him to pursue a new stadium across the bay in Hillsborough County yesterday in the way that only sports team owners can: By threatening that if he doesn’t get his way, he’ll find an imaginary person to move the team out of town.

“I’m not moving this team. I’m not taking this team out of the area. But that’s me,” Sternberg said at baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego.

“The chances of me owning this team in 2023 if we don’t have a new stadium are probably nil. Somebody else will take it and move it. It’s not a threat, just the reality.”…

Sternberg said he didn’t know exactly what they would do if the agreement is not approved by the council, but he certainly sounded discouraged by the prospects, adding that it could lead to the team leaving the market.

“If it doesn’t pass, we’re doomed to leave …” he said.

Sternberg has made threats like this before, mind you, but he at least then usually painted MLB officials as the bad guys wanting the team out of Tampa Bay. Blaming a hypothetical future Rays owner who doesn’t even exist yet isn’t quite a second-ever sighting of the ghost threat, but it’s still kind of impressive, given that he single-handedly managed to turn a day when people actually felt good about the Rays stadium situation (largely because nobody had yet thought much about the price tag, but hey, allow people their moments) into a hostage crisis in the course of a few hours.

Before anyone gets too excited about the Rays moving to Montréal on Friday if the council doesn’t approve this deal (whoops, too late!), keep in mind that the Rays are bound by their lease to stay at Tropicana Field through 2027, something Sternberg himself has acknowledged. Plus, if the new agreement isn’t approved by the council tomorrow, Sternberg (or whoever he sells the team to) can’t even talk to anyone outside of St. Pete about a new stadium — and even if it is approved, the Rays owner still can’t talk to anyone outside Tampa Bay before the lease is up.

So it’s a pretty idle non-threat threat, but when it’s the only arrow in your quiver, I guess you’ve got to run with it. Why the sports media is running with it too is a different question, but they have a long history of this stuff, too.

St. Pete mayor agrees to max $42m payment from Rays for leaving town early

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has scheduled a 10 am news conference today to announce his agreement on a lease amendment to allow Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to explore sites in Hillsborough County (which is where Tampa is, not where St. Pete is) for a new stadium. In exchange for letting the Rays out of the “can’t even think about a new stadium” clause of their lease, St. Petersburg would receive:

Payments would be based on how many years remain on the Trop lease if the Rays leave, starting at $4 million a season until December 2018, dropping to $3 million a season from 2019 to 2022 and $2 million from 2023 through 2026.

The Rays would have to make any remaining bond payments on the Trop, about $2 million a year. The city would cover demolition expenses.

(That’s from the Tampa Bay Times. You can read the full MOU here.)

So wait, St. Petersburg wouldn’t get any actual “exploratory fee” out of the deal immediately, just money if the Rays end up leaving before their lease is up? Since the earliest the team could possibly get a new Hillsborough stadium open would have to be the 2018 season, by my count that means a maximum of $24 million that Sternberg would have to pay to leave St. Pete early, plus $18 million in remaining bond payments.

Given that the Rays would have had to pay to break their lease regardless, on top of paying to get out of the no-looking-elsewhere deal, this seems awfully generous of Kriseman; Shadow of the Stadium’s Noah Pransky speculates that the mayor “must have felt his leverage was limited and the benefit of securing a deal now outweighed the risk of continued negotiation,” which sounds a lot like the reasoning being used to defend Billy Beane’s winter of trading everything not nailed down for a bucket of spare parts.

There is some upside to this deal for St. Petersburg: By making the Rays Tampa’s problem and potentially freeing up the land under Tropicana Field for development that’s active more than 81 days a year (giving Rays games the benefit of the doubt for being considered “activity”), it should more than offset any losses to the city from not having Rays fans drive across the bridge and buy hot dogs each summer. The question is more whether Kriseman, given Sternberg’s desperation to flee across the bay, got the best deal he could have swung — though given that Pransky reports that the St. Pete city council is  ready to rubber-stamp this on Thursday, it sounds like everyone concerned feels like they just want to arrange a payout now, and sit back and let Hillsborough County fight about this from now on.

Pransky will be live-tweeting the press conference starting at 10 am Eastern, so follow him there for further updates.

Tampa homeless charity CEO on unpaid sports concessions labor: Who you gonna believe, “former addicts” or him?

The Tampa Bay unpaid homeless labor scandal fallout continues to fall out this week, with Hillsborough County officials calling for a federal investigation, the Rays and concessionaire Centerplate launching their own probe, and the Lightning saying hey, don’t blame them, they stopped using these guys in 2013 due to “reliability and consistency concerns.” (Though not “violating labor law” concerns, I guess.)

The charity at the center of the charges, meanwhile, New Beginnings, has responded with its own press release, and it is hi-larious. For starters:

“We don’t use homeless or the clients than are in our Emergency Shelter for sporting events”.

Assuming that “than” is a typo for “that,” this at first sounds like the dozens of homeless New Beginnings clients who the Tampa Bay Times witnessed lining up to work concessions at a Buccaneers game must have been imaginary. The key here, though, is that phrase “in our Emergency Shelter” — New Beginnings does use its clients to run sports concessions, it just does so with those in its “work therapy” program, where homeless people learn how to re-enter the work world by working and not getting paid for it! (Which, come to think of it, probably is a good acclimation to the work world these days.)

New Beginnings also posted a link to a softball radio interview with New Beginnings CEO Tom Atchison on a Christian radio station, in which he denied all the charges, mostly by saying, “Are you kidding me? Stop this nonsense!” Then he said this:

“Can you imagine using somebody that’s homeless off the street to cash out a register and serve hot dogs? They’d be eating the hot dogs, stealing the beer, taking the money out of the register, and running down the street!”

Your homelessness charity director, people!

Atchison went on to blame disgruntled ex-employees and “a few former addicts that are telling him how horrible we are” for the negative press coverage, without actually contesting the central point of the Times article, which is that New Beginnings is pimping out its homeless clients to Tampa Bay sports teams, not paying them anything beyond their food and shelter, and pocketing any proceeds. Instead, he appears to be falling back on the defense that he’s a good Christian, so why are you picking on him, already?

On first blush it will appear that New Beginnings is a horrible agency, but after the dust has settled the truth about the great work we do will prevail. We at New Beginnings feel like we are under attack by the powers of darkness, but God is at our side to walk us through this.

God better have one heck of a labor lawyer.