tampabay.com

Lot of curve balls could derail Rays

Any number of factors could stall a new stadium.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 2, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - The Tampa Bay Rays hope to break ground on a downtown waterfront stadium in 500 days.

But getting there will test the limits of government and the patience of people.

Rays officials insist they can make their schedule. Others are uncertain if the stadium ever will be built.

Here's why. Ahead of a planned citywide referendum next November, the Rays need to - in no particular order:

-Convince Mayor Rick Baker and other city leaders that a new stadium is a good idea.

-Receive a $60-million pledge from the cash-strapped state Legislature.

-Get the city and Pinellas County to amend the master plan for St. Petersburg's downtown.

-Generate enough interest in Tropicana Field to fetch at least $100-million from the sale of it.

-Create a workable traffic plan.

-Navigate several state and federal regulatory agencies.

-Work out a plan to pay off the city's existing debt at Tropicana Field.

One misstep could doom the project, which the Rays say would be worth more than $1-billion.

And even if they succeed, the Rays must still get city voters to approve.

"There are a thousand moving pieces to this, and they're not even on Step One in my book," said City Council member Bill Foster.

Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt, the point person on the stadium project, acknowledges that many details still need to be worked out. But, he said, that work could not begin before the team went public with its plans on Wednesday.

Now that it has, a more formal and inclusive process can begin, Kalt said.

"We are under no illusion that this will be easy," he said. "But we are very confident that this project will come together."

Political hurdles

The Rays unveiled plans last week to construct a 34,000-seat, $450-million open-air stadium on the current site of Al Lang Field.

The team faces obstacles no matter the source of the money to pay for it.

City and county governments tired of tightening their belts likely will face even larger budget shortfalls next year and beyond, said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala.

It doesn't make sense to begin to consider the Rays' plan until next spring, when a state tax reform commission makes its recommendations for property tax cuts, she said.

"If some of these proposals are actually passed and local taxes are dramatically decreased, we will only be paying for essential services such as the operation of the jail," Latvala said. "We won't even have health and human services money."

And if the Rays seek to benefit from tax increment financing - a program that would redirect city and county tax dollars from a redeveloped Tropicana Field into downtown capital projects - Latvala says there would be problems, too.

"Get in line," she said. "Everybody would like to do that."

Across the country, public sentiment is turning against taxpayer financing of sports stadiums. Just last year, residents of Seattle and Sacramento opposed publicly funded basketball arenas.

"I've got no money to put in a project," Mayor Baker said.

Even though the Rays stress that they aren't asking for new taxes to support their plan, City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett said it's naive to think that the city won't be asked to contribute in some way.

"To think we're not going to have to participate one way or another, that's wishful thinking," Bennett said. "This ... has a framework that you can begin putting it all together and hopefully it will not prove to be a hardship to the city."

The team also is seeking $60-million from the state Legislature and millions more from the sale of the publicly owned Tropicana site.

"At the state level, we have some financial challenges, but I also know that we need to continue to find ways to stimulate this great economy," said Gov. Charlie Crist, a stadium proponent.

Labyrinth of approvals

Money is not the only hurdle. And it may not even prove the most significant.

The plans for the new stadium call for dumping fill dirt in six-tenths of an acre of Tampa Bay to create new land. Then the city would re-route Bayshore Drive across the new land.

Without filling in the bay, architects say the stadium won't fit under the proposed plans. But in order to do it, the team must first traverse a labyrinth of state and federal agencies.

And that's just one layer of government needed to make the Rays' proposal a reality.

The city and county - and possibly the state - would have to sign off on the potential redevelopment of the 85-acre Tropicana site.

And the Federal Aviation Administration would have to approve plans for a new ballpark, since the site is so close to Albert Whitted Airport.

The Rays also have to win over Baker, a powerful potential ally who has yet to commit either way on the project.

Baker was asked by the Rays to speak at last week's unveiling, but declined. The mayor said he needs to see the team's final proposal before making up his mind.

His support is critical to any project getting off the ground.

"We're going to be cautious until we get more details," said Baker, who said he likes the idea of playing baseball overlooking the waterfront. But he also says he likes watching games at Tropicana Field.

Then there's the matter of St. Petersburg voters.

Voters never got the chance to decide whether to build Tropicana, but they will get the final say on plans for a waterfront ballpark because of extra waterfront protections in the City Charter.

They will be asked - likely next November - to approve a long-term lease for the Rays, not a financing plan. But the Rays, the city and everyone else knows the vote will be a referendum on the project, not a lease.

A St. Petersburg Times survey of 616 registered city voters found both pockets of support and opposition for the plan. Fifty-seven percent of voters surveyed said they would favor plans to build a stadium if no city tax dollars were used. But if St. Petersburg tax dollars were part of the equation, 69 percent said they would oppose the plan.

"The biggest piece to all of this, and the one that's being ignored today, is the vote of the residents of St. Petersburg," Foster said.

"Assuming the stars line up at the end of the day, and it comes down to a referendum, it doesn't matter what the people of Clearwater or Tampa think," Foster said. "It's not about Tampa Bay at that point. It's about the residents of the city of St. Pete."

Times staff writers Nicole Hutcheson and Craig Pittman contributed to this report.

 

Obstacles facing the Rays

Tax cuts from the state: The Rays already benefit from a $60-million tax break courtesy of the state Legislature. Asking for a second one may not go over well.

Making it fit: The stadium architect says the Al Lang Field site is the smallest ever contemplated for a modern major league stadium. Can a major league facility fit on 10 acres?

Dredge and fill: The Rays reportedly want to dredge and fill a small portion of the water next to the stadium.

Parking:The Rays say there are 12,000 parking spaces within a 15-minute walk of Al Lang Field. The city only controls 5,400. If the stadium is ever built, where will the fans park? What about people coming downtown for something other than baseball?

$$$$ for the Trop: The team is planning to use the proceeds of the sale of Tropicana Field to pay for a large portion of the new stadium. How much is the Trop worth? Would the city and county want a cut?

It's hot in the summer: The retractable shade-sail roof could cut up to 10 degrees off the temperature inside the stadium, the team says. Is that possible?

City voters: Perhaps the most difficult hurdle of all. The Rays want a referendum next November.