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ST. PETERSBURG - The Tampa Bay Rays want city voters to decide next year on their plans for a downtown waterfront baseball stadium, the City Council chairman said Monday.
The team intends to ask the council to place a referendum on the November 2008 ballot, council chairman Jamie Bennett said. The plan calls for building a $450-million stadium at the site of city-owned Al Lang Field, and a major mixed-use development at the site of the Rays' current home, Tropicana Field.
The referendum was one of several new details to emerge Monday, three days after the St. Petersburg Times' Web site, tampabay.com, broke the story about the Rays' plans.
Bennett said he spent 90 minutes speaking with team officials about their intentions. He left the meeting impressed.
"They've done their homework," Bennett said. "And from first blush, it seems like it could work."
Though the Rays have declined to provide details of their plans, team officials showed Bennett a series of conceptual drawings of the new stadium. Among the new details:
-The team proposes to provide 5,000 parking spaces at Tropicana Field for games at the new stadium 10 blocks away. A shuttle could take fans back and forth. The Rays said an analysis shows there are 12,000 parking spaces within a half-mile of the downtown site.
-The new stadium would be open-air, but a stylized "sail" roof could protect the seats and the field from sun and rain.
-The new stadium would have views of the bay, the Pier and the downtown skyline. The parking lot now at the Al Lang site would be turned into a park.
-Tropicana Field would be turned into a mixed-use residential and retail complex. Affordable housing would be a major component.
As far along as the Rays are, there are still many details to work out, Bennett said. Most notably, there's the question of how the team would cover the potential $450-million cost of construction.
Bennett said the Rays did not ask for any city contribution during their meeting. The Rays are expected to ask the state to contribute $60-million from a sales-tax rebate program. Under that scenario, which requires legislative approval, sales taxes on merchandise, food and beer sold in the new facility over 30 years would be diverted to help pay off construction costs.
The city hasn't seen an official presentation, and may not see one for weeks.
City voters would have the final say on a new stadium, because the city charter requires a public vote for the kind of long-term lease on waterfront land the Rays would need. And the City Council would have to agree to put the measure on the fall 2008 ballot.
"The city's not agreed to anything at this point," Mayor Rick Baker said. "If a presentation is made to us, we'll evaluate it and do what's best for the city."
More stadium details
The Rays have drawings of the new stadium from several angles, Bennett said. The team declined to provide the Times with copies on Monday.
One view is from the outside of the stadium, another is from inside, Bennett said. Another view is from the water.
"If you look at it from the side, you can see through it," said Bennett. "It's not an obtrusive, big object."
Bennett said the sail-like covering would shield parts of the field and would be anchored off a pole.
"It kind of has a nautical look from the side," Bennett said. "It kind of looks like a big ol' sail."
The roof would prevent rainouts, except in cases of extreme weather.
Council member Herb Polson said he also met with team executives Monday.
"It's an interesting-looking facility," said Polson, who said he had several questions Monday about how the covering would operate.
Team officials told city officials there would be enough parking to accommodate fans.
And the Rays want to keep 5,000 spaces at Tropicana Field - in parking garages - to make up the difference.
That's one of just several changes contemplated for the Rays' current home.
Overhaul of Trop site
The team wants to turn the 70-acre-plus Tropicana site into a mixed-use residential and retail community, Bennett said.
The site would have large amounts of affordable housing and a park. It would be ringed by retail space.
The Rays would share in the proceeds from the sale of the land to a private developer along with the city, and potentially the county. All three entities have an interest in the site, which is bordered by interstates 275 and 175.
Commercial real estate experts on Monday said it could be a prime property, but they were unsure how much money the land would be worth on the open market.
"It would certainly lend itself to retail development, office development and a residential component," said Alan Feldshue, a senior associate with Colliers Arnold. "It's a fabulous site. If it was priced reasonably, you could make the economics work."
The plan to sell voters on a new stadium likely hinges as much on the redevelopment of Tropicana Field as the prospects of the new waterfront ballpark, Polson said. The city still owes about $100-million on Tropicana Field.
Other council members are expected to be asked to similar meetings in the coming days.
"This can't be solely centered on the new facility," Polson said. "We'll need to look at the entire picture."
"To me there are just an enormous number of questions. I would like to see some honesty about what it would do for economic development downtown. I don't want people to stop coming downtown Friday and Saturday nights, but that might happen. Any night there is a game, people might stay away."
Tim Baker, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association
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"Strictly as a fan of baseball, there is no greater site than the Al Lang property. I call it the holy grail of baseball. The list is huge as to how many Hall of Famers played baseball at that site. But not every resident is a fan. It's going to be up to the individual voter to weigh the pros and the cons, and there is still a lot out there that has not been disclosed to the public and it will, but on the Rays' time."
City Council member Bill Foster
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"The way they are talking it sounds like it could be one of the top major stadiums in the nation. I don't think there is anything negative to come out of that. Obviously it would be right across the street from us, so that would be great."
Bob Sputo, general manager of the Hilton St. Petersburg
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"I'm not opposed to something if it doesn't cause the taxpayers a lot of money. It's a beautiful site and it's always been a baseball field. If it can be worked out, and if they're not asking taxpayers to foot the bill, let's see what we can work out."
City Council member Earnest Williams
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"It sounds like a great idea. I know taxpayers don't want to throw anything in, but I think it can be done with private money. It's a great move for the city and the Rays. The land by the park is so beautiful, and if they build a beautiful park, which it sounds like they will, they will end up selling out 80 percent of the games down there. If they move, we will buy a bus and shuttle people down every 20 minutes."
Mark Ferguson, owner of Ferg's Sports bar
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"You are supposed to work hard and then get a raise. They ought to be a better baseball team first before they build a new stadium. It just doesn't make any sense. There is no place to park down there. At the Trop, there is parking and it is right by the interstate."
James Hughes, 41, a construction worker from Plant City
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"It doesn't matter where they play. The Rays need someone who can hit a home run first. They ought to spend that money and buy some better players."
Jay Cee Molette, 30, a construction worker from Tampa
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"It's not a matter of if you deserve it. It's a matter of business. The Bucs didn't deserve a stadium. They were crappy, but they got a new stadium and then they got better. This is their product. The Rays are just listening to their customers."
Brandon Roth, 32, a financial planner from St. Petersburg
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"An outdoor stadium is a great idea. For me, sports were made to play outside. It never feels right in the dome. So the new field will be outside. If it is hot, you live in Florida. Deal with it. They should have thought of this 15, 20 years ago."
Dan Brady, 38, a financial planner from Brandon
On deck for Rays
- Unveil plans for Al Lang, Tropicana Field sites. Expected in December.
- Make proposal to the city; ask for referendum on Nov. 2008 ballot.