tampabay.com

Ballpark plan fuels two cities' rivalry

St. Petersburg! No, Tampa! Rays' plans renew the debate.

By NICOLE HUTCHESON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 14, 2007


If you think the University of Florida-Florida State rivalry is bad, consider the age-old smashup between sister cities St. Petersburg and Tampa.

For generations, the qualities of the cities have been debated.

Tampa's got the size.

St. Petersburg's got the charm.

Tampa's got the Bucs and Lightning, St. Petersburg the Rays.

But as the Tampa Bay Rays talk of moving their home from Tropicana Field to Al Lang Field, the simmering clash between the cities is heating up once again.

Plenty of Tampa folks say the team should consider moving east of the Howard Frankland Bridge and take up residence with the bay area's other two major league sports teams. St. Petersburg fans say no way and call it another attempt by Tampa to steal its thunder.

Call-in talk shows, newspaper columnists, elected officials and blogs are all buzzing with this very discussion.

"Don't get me started on Tampa," said Mark Ferguson, who owns Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill, an institution on Central Avenue. "I believe the Lightning and Bucs are in Tampa, we have the Rays in St. Petersburg. ... Once they come over and see a game, they'll be fine. It's only water."

But Winter Haven resident Jamie Chastain said when it comes to the Rays moving to Tampa, dollars make sense.

"There's literally hundreds of thousands of kids and adults who have never been to the Trop or St. Petersburg because it's another 30 miles across that bridge, and down the interstate and you've got to go through malfunction junction," said Chastain, 59, a professor at Polk Community College. "They should do a poll, they'll find people in Pasco, Polk and Hardee who would all like to be closer so they could go to the games."

To be clear, even if the Rays wanted to move to Tampa, it would take a lot of legal wrangling and even more money to do so.

The Rays have a contract with the city of St. Petersburg that doesn't expire until 2027. And the city still owes about $100-million on Tropicana Field, not including interest. To get out of the contract, the team would have to at least pay off the city's debt and could face more legal penalties.

St. Petersburg City Council member Bill Foster compared the agreement to a marriage.

"The primary reason they the Rays don't move anywhere else, is what I like to call the 'prenuptial agreement,'" Foster said. "We're in holy matrimony with the Rays, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health. That's our relationship; that's our partnership."

In the late 1980s, St. Petersburg took an if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach. City officials footed the bill for Tropicana Field even before a major league team signed on. In 1995, the Tampa Bay area was awarded the franchise. Since St. Petersburg had already built the stadium, it was the logical place to play.

"St. Petersburg was Cinderella, and finally the slipper fits," Foster said. "We're no longer in their shadow, and now Tampa is just trying to keep up."

So far, Tampa officials are keeping out of the whole deal.

"They're in St. Petersburg; they always have been there. Tampa has never been a part of the equation," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "I think that's St. Petersburg's business."

Though some Tampa residents may be complaining about the trek to Tropicana Field, Rays officials say it hasn't affected ticket sales that much.

The Rays don't release specific numbers on ticket sales, but did say the team's season ticket base skews to Pinellas more than Hillsborough. However, individual tickets are quite evenly split, said Rick Vaughn, a spokesman for the team.

Recently, the team opened a new office and retail space in downtown Tampa to help spur season ticket sales.

Christine M. Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, said the cities should look at each other as complements, not competition.

"There are so many things we have now that almost demand a larger regional approach," Burdick said. "That doesn't mean that there won't always be a rivalry, but it also doesn't mean one city is better than the other."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (727)893-8828.

FAST FACTS

What fans say

The Times blog was buzzing with arguments over which is better for the Rays: St. Petersburg or Tampa? Here are a few messages:

Ray of Sunshine: Al Lang Stadium is one of my favorite ballparks. Downtown St. Pete is a beautiful place, a waterfront with great parks, bars and restaurants. And unlike Ybor City you don't have to take your gun with you when you go there.

* * *

Matthew: The Rays are TAMPA BAY's team. That's more than St Pete and more then Tampa. I live in Tampa, and St Pete really isn't far. I would go to more games if the experience was more enjoyable. This new ballpark in the waterfront sounds like a step in the right direction.

* * *

Sophie: Tampa is anywhere USA, but St. Pete has character! A new downtown ballpark in St. Pete would be amazing.

* * *

Tom: I think the stadium needs to be in Tampa, only logical place. Hasn't worked yet in St. Pete.

* * *

Dave: What a horrible idea!!!!!!!!!!! The stadium needs to be in Tampa! The intersections of I-4 and I-75 or I-4 and I-275 are the best places for a new stadium!!!!!