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Experts: St. Pete should worry about making Rays deal now, not damages down the road

Tampa Bay RaysInstead of being obsessed about laying the groundwork for damages should the Tampa Bay Rays leave the Trop, St. Pete officials should be concerned more about making a deal to keep the team in town, say experts.

It’s fair to say St. Petersburg has been defensive in its dealing with the Rays about the Trop: Mayor Bill Foster and several members of the City Council have taken a firm position that the team should play out its lease at the Trop (which runs through 2027) or be sued to make up potential lost city revenues. To say Foster has been aggressive about “protecting taxpayers” via legal intimidation is an understatement; the irony is that the Rays have been pitching solutions both now and in the past that involve addressing debt on the Trop. The vast majority of ballpark debt will be paid off by 2015, and the Rays have asked to look at other ballpark solutions only after the future of Tropicana Dome has been addressed.

The city has not reponded to that request; the only action as of late has been a legal threat against Hillsborough County if officials there enter into any ballpark talks with the Rays. The move, with several others, was seen by lawyers as a way to protect St. Pete should the Rays break the Trop lease.

Instead of acting in a lawyerly fashion, say experts, the city should be working on a ballpark solution now, because proving damages down the road — especially when Trop bonds are close to being paid off — will be very difficult:

“The more aggressively defensive the city is, the more litigation oriented they are,” said Professor James W. Fox, who teaches contracts at Stetson University College of Law. “they could weaken their negotiating position to get a more advantageous settlement.”

At the very lease, he suggested, the city should extract a financial penalty for letting the team discuss a Tampa move; right now the team pays no rent at the Trop.

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