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Rays' tough crowd: voters

The $450-million stadium plan must win a city election.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published December 9, 2007


The proposed ballpark on St. Petersburg's waterfront.

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[AP]
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ST. PETERSBURG - For the Tampa Bay Rays to sell the public on a new $450-million waterfront stadium, they can't just reach out to fans of baseball.

They have win over city voters.

The distinction says everything about how the Rays intend to push their plan. It also underscores the huge task ahead.

At a time where elected leaders across the state are being challenged to spend less, and in a city where two candidates whose voiceful opposition of the status quo won them seats on City Council, the Rays are asking for huge sums of public money and resources to be pumped into a baseball stadium.

The Rays say it's about economic development and revitalizing what amounts to 20 percent of downtown - including the redevelopment of Tropicana Field and its parking lots.

Opponents say it's more like corporate welfare. And one group is talking about a possible second referendum question that, if approved, would prevent the Rays from using public money to build a new stadium.

Eleven months ahead of a possible public referendum, both sides are marshaling support and resources for a bruising campaign.

"Everybody loves baseball here pretty much," said Barbara Heck, the president of the city's Council of Neighborhood Associations. "But, we're all wanting to see what's best for St. Pete. The questions that we have, that I have, are very detailed."

Depending on the particular cynic - as evidenced in barrooms, blogs and newspaper opinion pages - the Rays' plan is:

-A Machiavellian-style ploy to move the team to Tampa, Orlando, or points elsewhere.

-A conspiracy hatched behind closed doors that will happen somehow no matter how much the public protests.

-A mammoth financial boondoggle waiting to happen, with taxpayers stuck writing the check.

The Rays, of course, say it's none of these. The team is committed to staying in St. Petersburg, they say, as well as building a stadium at no additional tax burden to the city residents.

In the week and a half since their official announcement, team officials have been reaching out to anyone who will listen to their side of the story.

This week, meetings are scheduled with Heck's Council of Neighborhood Associations board and a leading advocate for Albert Whitted Airport. Meetings also are being scheduled with dozens of neighborhood associations and civic and business groups.

The small gatherings are where Rays executives will begin to hone their message. They will include little talk of baseball, or for that matter, a baseball stadium.

The Rays call the overall project - which the team pegs at more than $1-billion - Major League Downtown. And as their slogan would indicate, the sell emphasizes much more than a ballpark.

"We're going to go out to every neighborhood association and any civic group that will have us," said Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt. "And we're ready to go out more than once.

"We're not going through the motions to have a quote-unqoute 'dialogue.' We're actually going to do it," Kalt said. "It's going to make for a long year. But that's' how you build support."

The Rays already are paying for some limited radio advertising promoting the project and the Web site for the proposal, www.majorleaguedowntown.com.

The team also is planning focus groups to discuss the stadium design, and specifically how people will react to an open-air venue. Kalt said the team believes the stadium will be comfortable, but is unsure if fanswill concur.

A more active marketing campaign will come ahead of a November 2008 referendum, Kalt said. A referendum is needed because the Rays intend to ask for a long-term lease at the current site of Al Lang Field, which is city-owned waterfront property.

Some on fence

Organized neighborhood groups aren't ready to support or oppose the project. Their voice will be critical.

So will the advocates for Whitted Airport, who have shown the ability to command a significant voting bloc.

Jack Tunstill, a Whitted supporter, said people at the airport are nervous over the proposed stadium's 330-foot centerfield mast, which they fear may obstruct landings and takeoffs.

"By and large, those that can vote are saying they won't support the project," Tunstill said. "They don't know enough or they are very suspicious of development in the downtown area."

Business groups are waiting on more information from the Rays, too. But they have a more positive first impression.

"To talk baseball, we're in the first inning of this thing," said John T. Long, president of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. "But we're very impressed with what we've seen.

Then there's David McKalip, leader of the St. Petersburg group Cut Taxes Now. A staunch opponent of local government subsides, McKalip said he and his group will oppose any plan that includes using public funds.

The Rays current proposal calls for using a $60-million state sales tax subsidy as well as up to $300-million from the sale and redevelopment of the publicly owned Trop site to finance the construction of a new stadium.

"They talk about no new taxes. Why don't they say no taxes," McKalip. "They can try all they want to sell me. I'm not sellable."

In fact, McKalip said that his group may attempt to place another question before city voters in November, one that would preclude the use of public money in building astadium.

McKalip said the group would need to raise up to $60,000 to collect signatures for the petition, which may prove difficult. But, he said, "we're talking about it."

"This is corporate welfare at its worst," McKalip said. "What they're asking is for the taxpayer to bear the burden and the Devil Rays to profit."

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

[Last modified December 8, 2007, 21:52:44]


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