tampabay.com

Rays' deal may fizzle on new training site

Some in Charlotte County balk at using a tourist tax to upgrade a stadium.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published August 22, 2006


A deal to move the Devil Rays to Charlotte County for spring training could be in jeopardy.

Charlotte County hoteliers and the local tourism bureau are lining up against a proposal to use $15-million in tourist tax dollars to renovate the county's outdated baseball complex for the Rays.

Both groups say the money could be better spent attracting visitors still weary from the effects of the 2004 hurricane season. The county's Tourist Development Council formally rejected the financing plan last week.

"We are in hurricane recovery mode. We need to step up our marketing efforts to mitigate news coverage," said Becky Bovell, director of the county's tourism bureau. Spending money on the Devil Rays "sends the wrong message," Bovell said.

The rise of an opposition, especially within the tourist industry, is bad news for the Rays. Just 10 days ago, a team official was optimistic a deal would be struck to play spring games in Charlotte County as soon as 2009. The team has been looking to move its spring training operation away from St. Petersburg to build a new fan base that will carry over to the regular season.

"They have the best interests of the county at heart ," said Michael Kalt, the Rays senior vice president for development and business affairs. "We think we have a plan to help them."

Kalt said the Rays would consider joint marketing partnerships, including giving Charlotte County advertising space at Tropicana Field. The Rays also want the area to become a tourist draw because it could benefit the franchise, Kalt said.

Charlotte County administrators and the Rays want the county to raise the county's tourist tax to the state maximum - five cents for every dollar spent - to cover its share of the stadium renovations. The Rays would contribute $4-million and the state would pay $8-million toward the total renovation costs.

Charlotte County commissioners are scheduled to review the financing plan at a meeting today. One commissioner already has indicated he has reservations.

County Commissioner Adam Cummings said he will "have to be convinced" the Rays are worth the investment, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Rays officials were meeting individually with county commissioners Monday.

Cummings' concerns are critical. Because of a vacancy on the commission, all four remaining commissioners must approve the financing plan, said Charlotte County attorney Janette Knowlton.

A super-majority vote is required to approve any increase in the tourist tax, Knowlton said. Gov. Jeb Bush could appoint a fifth commissioner next month before a formal vote, but if there's any dissent today, the deal will be "pretty close to dead," she said.

"The need to get a 4-0 vote is somewhat unfortunate," Kalt said. "But it's the political reality. We're cautiously optimistic."

County officials also are reportedly mulling over a proposal to tear down the stadium, located in Port Charlotte, and replace it with a campus of Florida Gulf Coast University.

The stadium has been used for baseball tournaments and community events since the major league Texas Rangers left in 2002 to train in Arizona. A Korean baseball team spent time training at the complex last year.

The Cleveland Indians said they were interested in training at the site in 2003, but county commissioners rejected a plan that would have put the county on the hook for $9-million in stadium renovations.

The Rays have spent their springs at Progress Energy Park along St. Petersburg's waterfront. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker said the city would not object should the team decide to move.

The Rays are considering other locations if the Charlotte deal falls through, Kalt said. Municipalities have until Oct. 1 to apply for the $8-million in state funding to attract a spring team.