Free parking plan scores with fans

Local fans and downtown business owners welcome the new plan to offer free parking at Rays games in 2006.

Published October 6, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - From where Mark Ferguson sits, the Devil Rays' new plan to offer free parking next season is a winning idea.

Of course, Ferguson was sitting at his Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill within view of Tropicana Field. Free parking could mean more customers for Ferg's.

But Ferguson also believes this is a welcoming gesture to fans that will create new excitement about the Devil Rays.

"We're all baseball fans, we all want to see people at the ball park," said Ferguson. "This guy's going to get it done."

"This guy" is the Devil Rays' new principal owner, Stuart Sternberg, who announced that the $10 parking fee will be dropped next season for the 6,882 spaces on 14 city-owned lots around Tropicana Field.

Whether it lasts beyond next season is unclear.

"It's going to cost us some real money and it's not something that necessarily will be here for forever," said Sternberg, who said free parking was his idea. "But when you're trying to make nice and when you're trying to show people that you're here for the long run, I think it's as clear an indication as anything we can do."

Several downtown business owners and others said free parking could spark new interest in the Devil Rays and draw more people to games at the downtown domed stadium.

"It's always good to save money," said Devil Rays fan Michael Brewer, 46, of Tampa, who takes his six kids to a couple games each season. "I might catch a couple of extra games."

Maryann Horvath, 57, who lives in New York and owns a home in Tampa, says free parking will get her to a game.

"Definitely. That aggravates me when you have to pay so much for the tickets and then you have to pay for parking also."

Even Michael Bright was positive, and he operated three private lots last year that charged $5 for each of the roughly 300 spaces.

"I think that it's all good," Bright said. "Anything to get people down there for the games, they need warm bodies there."

Mayor Rick Baker said the team contacted him before the announcement and enthusiastically endorsed the idea.

"I told them I would support their move to do that," Baker said. "I thought it was an investment in goodwill."

Baker said he would encourage the City Council to follow suit.

The team operates the parking lots and pays the city $1.02 per car, generating about $100,000 a year, said Joe Zeoli, the city's managing director of administration and finance.

The Devil Rays declined to say how much free parking will cost the team, but based on the city's revenue, it could be about $900,000 a year.

The seven-year deal was struck in 2001 so the Devil Rays could repay money the city spent to repair the stadium's heating and air condition system during a renovation.

Zeoli said it isn't clear how Thursday's announcement will affect that arrangement. While the Rays didn't need city permission to waive the parking fees, the City Council might need to give its approval if a change is made to the reimbursement agreement.

"We still need to sit down and talk this through with the Devil Rays," Zeoli said.

City council member Bill Foster said he supports the plan too, but wishes someone had told the council about it first.

"It was a surprise," Foster said. "I'm not going to say I'm not going to accept it. But somewhere in this use agreement, we're supposed to approve it."

At Steve's Tavern on Central Avenue, owner Steve Capinegro called the move "a step in the right direction." But not just for getting more people downtown.

He and other downtown business owners say city parking employees ticket cars on game nights, aggravating his customers and employees, who must move their cars every two hours.

Times Staff Writers Carrie Johnson, Elisabeth Dyer and Damian Cristodero contributed to this report.