Michael Kalt: He deals to build fields

Can the man who got new stadium plans for the Yankees and Mets do it for the Rays?

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 30, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- The silent wheel of the Blackberry turns.

Wednesday, meetings with the chamber and a neighborhood group.

Thursday, breakfast with Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.

Friday, more meetings.

Monday, in Atlanta. Meetings.

Michael Kalt has 16 neighborhood presentations planned in the next month or so. More will be scheduled.

"How about a drink after work?" Kalt, senior vice president of the Tampa Bay Rays, asks a reporter hoping for an hour.

If the Rays are going to build the $450-million waterfront stadium of their dreams, it's going to be because of Kalt, a 33-year-old Ivy League-educated wunderkind hired to lead the stadium talks.

Negotiations will consume the next year of his life. He knows this. His girlfriend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology knows this. People will be pulling him in every direction.

If it goes badly, he jokes, he will spend 2009 hiding in Mexico.

If it goes well, he will have brokered his third deal to build a major-league baseball stadium before the age of 35.

* * *

It's a Tuesday night at the Independent, an upscale beer-centric bar off Central Avenue in downtown.

It takes some maneuvering just to reach the bartender.

"What's today? Tuesday? Thursday?" asks Kalt, who says he's averaging less than six hours of sleep most nights. "It's Tuesday -- and it's packed. And it's because you start giving people a reason to feel like there are other people down here.

"That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to create a sense of place."

Kalt is not naive. The plan -- to make over the downtown waterfront with a 34,000-seat, open-air stadium paid for largely from tax money generated by the redevelopment of Tropicana Field -- is not an easy sell. City voters must approve the deal.

He knows history is against him.

Voters are still upset that Tropicana Field was built without their approval.

The city had to wait eight years to actually get a baseball team to use the stadium.

The team that finally came is typically among baseball's worst.

"It all happened. We weren't here," says Kalt, referring to the Rays new ownership group that took over in 2005. Kalt joined the team early the next year. "The question is: How to do what's best going forward?"

That will be the focus of a year-long debate.

In New York, Kalt orchestrated a deal for a new Mets stadium in two days, he says.

Over a beer, he tells the story.

"I'm pretty proud of it," he begins.

A New York story

New York, Sept. 10, 2001.

Rudy Giuliani is mayor, the terrorists are a day away, and Kalt is a Manhattan-based private management consultant wondering what to do with his life.

Should he leave the city where he grew up? Should he abandon a stable job in order to start over? Should he stay?

The answer became clear in the chaos of the next day.

Raised in Brooklyn by a father who delivered newspapers and a mom who split time between work and home, Kalt lived a classic New York story. Born into the working class, educated in public schools, he ran the New York City Marathon twice, then worked his way to the Ivy League. First Brown, then Harvard.

His political science thesis at Brown was entitled: "Organized labor and the Democratic Party in the 1960s and beyond." He got a law degree from Harvard but had no interest in being a lawyer.

Now, after all the city had given him, New York was asking for a measure of payback. He couldn't help but oblige.

In February 2003, Kalt took a job as a senior economic development adviser for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Kalt was assigned to major economic development deals in mid Manhattan and Queens. But stadiums quickly became his specialty.

Giuliani already had negotiated new stadiums for the Yankees and Mets, but Bloomberg killed them both, saying they relied too heavily on public resources.

"There wasn't a clamor to work on this stuff," Kalt said. "Particularly because no one thought the stadium negotiations were going anywhere."

Over time, talks slowly picked up.

The Yankees deal came first. Instead of the city paying roughly half the cost of a new $800-million stadium, as Giuliani proposed, Kalt helped craft a deal in which the city paid nothing. The city did agree to contribute $220-million to build a parking garage and a new park.

The Mets deal was similarly constructed, but in much less time.

In summer 2005, city officials were racing to find a venue that could double as a possible Olympic stadium.

Kalt, in a matter of hours, found a willing partner in the Mets.

"I had developed a good relationship with Mets," Kalt said. "I'd dealt with them on a bunch of things. I just said if we wanted to get a deal done, we could do it now."

The Mets would pay for most of the cost of a new ballpark if the city would cover the overruns if the stadium were to host the Olympics in 2012.

The headline in the New York Times on June 13, 2005:

"2012 Bid Survives as Mets Commit to Stadium Deal."

Though Kalt's name was never mentioned in the 1,500-word piece, his fingers were all over the deal, three former colleagues and his former boss said recently.

"He had a huge hand in moving that deal," said Josh Sirefman, the former head of the New York City Economic Development Corp. New York City Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, his boss, points out Kalt also had a hand in negotiating a deal to move the New Jersey Nets to a new arena in Brooklyn.

"The city of New York hadn't built a new stadium since 1969," Doctoroff said, referencing Madison Square Garden. "Countless administrations had tried and failed. Michael was in the middle of three.

"There is no person who could possibly be better suited to undertake a stadium project in St. Petersburg," Doctoroff added.

The Olympics ultimately were awarded to London, not New York, but the Mets stadium was still a go. And Kalt had become the stadium guy.

That's when another guy looking to build a stadium called.

But Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg wasn't pitching a plan to replace Tropicana Field.


Long way from N.Y.

Kalt would have to earn his stripes in Port Charlotte, where the Rays wanted to build a new spring training home.

Sternberg called it the "junior stadium."

The $27.2-million project would remake a 20-year-old ballpark into the state-of-the-art baseball facility.

The deal was built to rave reviews. Kalt received much of the credit.

"It didn't matter where he went to school and whose office he's worked at," said Laura Kleiss Hoeft, director of Charlotte County Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. "He was with us walking in the dirt. He was at every meeting. He was working until 3 o'clock in the morning."

The day after the Port Charlotte negotiations finished -- in fall 2006 -- Sternberg asked Kalt to build the plan to replace Tropicana Field.

The tenets were clear. They are the guiding principles Kalt has begun reciting in meetings with public and civic leaders:

When Kalt was younger, he wanted to either be a member of Congress or the New York Mets' starting second baseman. Both those dreams are long gone. He says he has no interest in running for office and a body barely able to handle a pickup softball game at the Trop. But his new job is a marriage of sports and politics.

"He took us from the basic colors, black and red and green, to all the colors of the spectrum," Sternberg said. "He saw the opportunity to really reinvigorate and reinvent the whole city. He got it right away. He got the ball going."

The ball, of course, still has a long way to go.

Kalt seems frustrated at times when he doesn't have an answer to a question. Specifics on financing or parking are months away from becoming known.

In New York, friends said Kalt loved to work fast.

Sometimes, he moves faster than government is used to. Kalt is experiencing some of that in St. Petersburg. Just last week, a key neighborhood group asked discussions be slowed.

He also drives fast. In St. Petersburg, Kalt was ticketed last May after his tan BMW was clocked at 58 mph in a 35 mph zone.

He even talks a little fast, with a New York accent, people in St. Petersburg have noticed.

"He is a brilliant business mind who still doesn't understand the complexities of the St. Petersburg residents," said City Council member Bill Foster. "That's not to say he can't learn. St. Petersburgers are very unique. We like certain things. You need to understand the mindset of a St. Petersburger before you ask them to take leap of faith."

His style should not be confused with arrogance, friends said.

"Mike can see why something makes sense to everybody else involved," said Roy Bahat, a colleague from New York who also was the college roommate of Rays president Matt Silverman. "The reason he was able to put together the deals he did in New York, was because he was trying to do something that works for the other guy as much as it does for him."

'I'll sleep in 2009'

Kalt works his beer for two hours. The questions don't give him much time to pick up the glass. Stadium talk turns to family.

Kalt has two older sisters, but plans to spend his holiday in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and her family. His parents like to visit; they prefer spring to summer.

He talks about his favorite book, a Robert Caro three-volume biography of Lyndon Johson, and his fascination with New York's Reagan Democrats.

And he tells the story about meeting Sternberg, a self-made millionaire who, it turns out, grew up in Kalt's neighborhood.

"Trust me, he's the only major- league sports owner ever to come out of that part of Brooklyn," Kalt, who is 5-foot-9, says. "Except maybe some owner of a roller derby team from the 1970s."

He leaves with a handshake shortly before 9 p.m.

But before he goes, Kalt says he'll make time for a photographer hoping to meet him at his Tropicana Field office.

There, a dry erase board fills a wall over his left shoulder. On one side is a to-do list for the new spring training stadium.

On the other side is a list, nearly as long, about the proposed stadium.

In the corner is a simple message, written in blue and outlined in orange.

"I'll sleep in 2009."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.