BRADENTON, Fla. – Florida's Tampa Bay Rays can now begin the hunt for a new stadium location, a process Major League Baseball and the team have sought for years.
The St. Petersburg City Council voted 5-3 Thursday to approve a memorandum of understanding that gives the team until Dec. 31, 2018 to evaluate possible sites.
The MOU was negotiated by Mayor Rick Kriseman. The council had rejected two prior agreements that would have allowed the team to conduct a search.
The approved agreement does not mention how a new ballpark would be financed, and it limits the team's site search area to Pinellas County, which includes its current home at Tropicana Field in downtown St. Petersburg, as well as adjacent Tampa and Hillsborough County.
"This has been a long time coming for us," said Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg. "At the end of the day, it's a start."
Sternberg said the deal would allow the team's owners along with sponsors and partners to find the right location, and then concentrate on building a stadium that will draw crowds, including a facility with "real grass as opposed to artificial turf" and other amenities that have kept fans away.
Attendance at Rays games has ranked last in the league for 10 years out of the 18 years the team has played at the dome-covered Tropicana Field.
Rays president Brian Auld said the team wants to take a "fresh look" all possible sites for a future home in Pinellas and Hillsborough to secure the future of MLB in Tampa Bay.
"I firmly believe that St. Petersburg and [Tropicana Field] is the best long-term location for the league," Kriseman said while presenting the latest MOU.
Kriseman also urged the council to approve the agreement so that the city could present its "best pitch" as to why the Rays should remain at their current home base, an 85-acre parcel that has redevelopment potential for the team and others that have shown interest in the land.
Councilman Jim Kennedy, who opposed the deal, said that he felt that the team could just leave the region if a new site isn't found locally.
"This is just a starting point for a potential larger relocation," Kennedy said.
Several council members, including chairwoman Amy Foster, said maintaining the status quo was not an option where continuing a stalemate with the Rays would prevent the city from figuring out options for the dome site's future.
"This is just the first step," Foster said about the MOU. "We still get to debate financing options [and] whether corporate welfare is involved."
There was no mention of how or who would finance a new stadium. Prior estimates pegged the cost at between $450 million and $600 million solely for the stadium.
City council members said Thursday that taxpayers have invested $400 million in the dome over the years, which likely includes financing costs and other expenses such as maintenance.
The bond-financed Tropicana Field, which opened March 3, 1990, cost $138 million to build. In October 1996, it was closed for 17 months and $85 million was spent preparing it for use by the Rays.
A small portion of the debt will be paid off this year, though the city issued $16.3 million of professional sports facility sales tax refunding revenue bonds in 2014 with final maturity in 2025.
The agreement approved Thursday indemnifies the city against any fees and liabilities connected with the revenues securing the bonds or any adverse action involving the tax-exempt status of the debt if the team terminates the agreement to play at another location besides Tropicana Field before the end of the current lease in 2027.
For nearly a decade, Sternberg has said that the dome would not be a viable ballpark by the end of the team's lease.
ESPN once listed the Trop, as locals call it, the fourth-worst ballpark in the country based in part on viewers comments calling it "a giant warehouse" with an obstructed view of the field because of catwalks lining the ceiling that are part of the dome's support structure.