Key player in stadium proposal won't show his hand

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker says his mind isn't made up.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 5, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- At last weeks' unveiling of a proposed waterfront ballpark, Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg sat between the two men who single-handedly could doom his $450-million dream.

One, Gov. Charlie Crist, told the more than 100 people at Al Lang Field that Sternberg's vision is "one of the most exciting things I think I've ever seen."

The other, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, remained conspicuously quiet. The Rays asked Baker to address the crowd.

He said no.

"I've not committed either way," Baker would say later.

If the baseball team is ever going to build a new home in downtown St. Petersburg, Baker is a person Rays officials need to persuade. He could derail stadium talks before they reach an advanced stage, and certainly ahead of a possible city referendum next November.

Baker's silence on the Rays stands in stark contrast to his penchant for supporting city economic development projects during his six years in office.

On Tuesday, in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Baker said not to anticipate his decision on the project anytime soon.

"Ultimately the Rays really need to convince the community," Baker said. "They can convince me and the City Council, and maybe we'll all love it. But if they don't convince the community, it's not going anywhere."

Baker said he likes the concept of a new stadium on the downtown waterfront. But he also has said he likes Tropicana Field.

Swinging his opinion will depend on a number of factors, he said.

The city plans to conduct an independent traffic and parking analysis to determine if a 34,000-seat open-air stadium, and the cars that go with it, could fit downtown, Baker said.

The city also will examine the Rays' plans to add parkland next to the downtown stadium.

And Baker said the city needs more details on the financing of the project, which tops $1-billion when the redevelopment of Tropicana Field is included.

Rays officials say the largest chunk of the money for the new stadium would come from the redevelopment of Tropicana Field and the adjacent parking lots. The team says the land could generate between $250-million and $300-million -- part from the sale of the land, part from the city and county property taxes collected on the redeveloped site.

Baker said the city would wait until seeing developers' proposals before reaching a conclusion.

"We have to make sure we're boring into these questions," Baker said. "There's a lot of questions that everyone needs answered."

Neither the Rays nor City Council members were surprised by Baker's remarks Tuesday.

"Frankly, it would be irresponsible for him to say this is greatest project in the world before he knows what the finances are," said Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt.

City Council member Earnest Williams also suggested that the mayor may be holding out for something else -- that the Rays include St. Petersburg in the team's name.

Baker said Tuesday that he would prefer the team altered its name from the more generic Tampa Bay, but that it would not be a condition of his support.

"The mayor's very thoughtful about a lot of issues," Williams said. "He's a very thoughtful and thorough person in his deliberations. I'm sure there's a rational reason why he has not moved forward to embrace the project."

Council member Herb Polson said he shares the mayor's deliberate approach.

"The mayor's a cautious individual. I'm sure he wants to get a good assessment of the scope of this before he make any kind of pronouncement either way," Polson said. "That's the way I'm taking it."

Aside from Crist, the team so far is without vocal support from the area's elected leadership. That's probably not a surprise, given the many unanswered questions.

Most public officials had never heard of the Rays intentions before last month, when the Times' Web site, tampabay.com, broke the story.

The Rays' financing plan includes unknowns, and in reality, it's too early to determine how much of a political albatross the Rays' proposal might be for local lawmakers. A recent Times poll found voters with varying opinions of a new stadium, depending on how the question was asked.

That's likely part of the mayor's calculations as well.

Some city residents voiced their anger last month when they learned Baker and top city administrators knew about the Rays' plans since at least March. Putting distance between the Rays and the mayor could lessen any suggestion that a deal was crafted behind closed doors.

Baker said he knows no more about the major details than the next person.

"There might be little things," Baker said. "But as far as the major things of this, they're all on the table now."

Kalt said that along with the mayor, team officials have met with each City Council member.

Presentations to neighborhood and civic groups are being scheduled, Kalt said.

Also in the works, no doubt, are a few more chats with Baker.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.