BRADENTON, Fla. - Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays may finally be getting traction in their effort to move from Tropicana Field in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., where they play now.
City Mayor Rick Kriseman negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the team that allows the Rays to enter non-binding discussions for a new stadium outside the city limits, but within Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
The deal, which assures that the franchise remains in the immediate region, still must be approved or rejected by the City Council on Thursday.
Kriseman informed council members on Dec. 11, when he agreed to postpone consideration of the MOU for a week, that they cannot propose amendments to the agreement.
"The memorandum before you would be the memorandum of understanding for approval or denial next week," Kriseman told the council at the time, when he agreed to a delay so they could have more time to study the terms of the MOU. "The Rays made it clear...they are not up for any changes."
Thursday's meeting will also allow members of the public to address the issue for the first time.
The Rays, an MLB expansion team that started playing in 1998, entered an agreement to play in St. Petersburg through the 2027 season. The city's multi-use dome, originally opened in 1990, was converted for baseball use at a cost of $85 million. Most of the cost of the conversion and upgrades in the years since have been bond financed.
The MOU before the City Council on Thursday, if approved, would allow the team to enter non-binding discussions and communications, and conduct studies, analysis, and cost estimates for a new stadium site in Pinellas or Hillsborough counties. St. Petersburg is in Pinellas County, while Hillsborough's county seat is Tampa.
If a site search, and funding for a new stadium proves fruitful, the agreement allows the Rays to enter termination discussions if they plan to leave Tropicana Field prior to the 2027 season. If such an agreement comes to pass, the team would be required to pay St. Petersburg $4 million a year through 2018, $3 million a year between 2019 and 2022, and $2 million a year from 2023 through 2026.
Other stipulations of termination require the Rays to indemnify and hold the city harmless from all losses, liabilities, and fees incurred by the city in connection with outstanding bond payments, and if termination of the agreement adversely affects the tax-exempt status of the debt. The team would also be required to obtain a letter of credit to secure the city's obligations.
As of Dec. 1, three series of bonds were outstanding for Tropicana Field, according to city documents.
Bonds issued in 1993 and secured by an excise tax remain outstanding in the principal amount of $7.73 million through October 2015. Some $4.96 million of notes issued in 2001 through the First Florida Governmental Financing Commission are outstanding until July 2016. Another $16.34 million of professional sports facility refunding bonds have final maturity in October 2025.
The Rays have negotiated for a new stadium for years, primarily arguing that the 45,000-seat Tropicana Field, the only stadium in Major League Baseball with a roof that cannot be opened, is too large. Attendance at the games has been at or near the bottom of the league.
Before the recession, the team had sought a partially covered new stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront with 35,000 seats, 50 suites, and 2,500 club seats. While city officials rejected that site, cost estimates for the new facility have ranged between $450 million and $600 million, though no exact funding source has been identified.
In more recent years, the team has wanted to look at other potential venues in Pinellas County and Tampa to the north, where they believe the fan base will be greater.