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By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published February 3, 2008
ST. PETERSBURG -- On a crisp Thursday evening, as the Tampa Bay Rays prepare to make yet another pitch for a new waterfront stadium, the Enoch Davis Center on 18th Avenue S is teeming with life.
A church choir of 40 is rehearsing in a front room. Another two dozen people are planning a high school reunion nearby. And, at the end of hallway, in a well-lit room meant for 125, sit two police officers, 11 residents and two Rays' employees.
It has not been an easy sell, this $450-million stadium and downtown renovation. Some say it will ruin a downtown waterfront. Others reveal a clear distrust for the baseball franchise. Even giddy supporters would like more details, especially about money.
This night will be no easier.
During opening remarks from Melanie Lenz, a bubbly and fast-talking member of the Rays' team, an audience member interrupts.
"The problem I have," says Theresa Jones, a city employee and neighborhood resident, "is the promises of Tropicana Field were never met. How can you guarantee those promises this time?"
Minutes later, it's David Welch's turn.
"What really bothers me is, you come to neighborhood associations after the fact," says Welch, one of the City Council members who originally voted to build the dome. He points to the row of drawings the Rays have assembled at the front of the room.
"You're gonna have to come at me with something better than that."
Since the Rays announced their ballpark plans in November, team officials have been the guest of every Rotary Club, neighborhood association and chamber of commerce group that will have them. They have given the same presentation at least 30 times in the last two months, with an additional 26 community meetings scheduled between now and April.
The team is planning return visits.
"This isn't a thing where we come once, clap our hands and say, 'well, we got their input,'" Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt said.
What it is, however, is the heart of the Rays' campaign to win over voters before a potential referendum on the stadium plan in November.
The meetings, which can be sparsely attended or standing room only, reveal the considerable obstacles for a franchise that is only beginning to listen to what people have to say.
* * *
The meeting of the Holiday Park Neighborhood Association follows script. A group of 29 crowds a small room at the J.W. Cate Center. It's hard to hear Lenz over the dog obedience training class in the room next door.
Lenz's message is the same. "Tropicana Field isn't the long-term solution for this ballclub."
The responses are familiar. "If you put a good team on the field, it wouldn't matter where you played."
At least, Lenz and colleague Bill Walsh find an ally in this crowd.
"I'm absolutely thrilled," says Kevin Hannigan, a 33-year-old stocks and bonds broker. "I think it's a wonderful thing for St. Petersburg." After the meeting, Hannigan and the Rays exchange information.
But the Rays also find an outspoken opponent. As Lenz is talking about the team's commitment to build to respect the environment, 47-year-old Lee Silverstein interrupts.
"Well, I guess I'm committed to try to stop you," Silverstein says.
Silverstein and the Rays do not exchange phone numbers.
Asked after the meeting what in the Rays' proposal she doesn't like, Silverstein says, "The whole thing."
Every audience has someone like Silverstein -- not always as sharp-tongued, but still infinitely clear.
* * *
The Rays say they aren't looking for yes votes -- yet. The meetings are meant to address the common questions, stamp out rumors and gather input.
The real campaigning likely will begin in the summer, when traffic and parking studies are finishing and a Tropicana Field plan is closer to completion.
Until then, the team just keeps talking.
The Suncoast Tiger Bay Club recently drew 100 guests and a TV audience on Bay News 9.
The first question was why can't the team pay for the entire stadium itself. Rays president Matt Silverman says, eventually, that it couldn't afford it.
At Venetian Isles, word that the Rays were coming doubled the normal crowd.
"They did a good job explaining the parking," Jim Pelletier, the president of the group, said afterward. "But I'm not sure many people bought it."
At the end of the Venetian Isles session, once the Rays had left, Pelletier asked the 55 neighbors in attendance what they thought about the team's plans.
"It was more positive than I expected," Pelletier said.
About half said they were for it, or in the middle.
The other half were against it.
Aaron Sharockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2273.
Want a meeting with the Rays?
A full list of scheduled community meetings is available on the team's Web site, www.majorleaguedowntown.com. If your group is not listed, you can contact the team through the site. Click on feedback.
Meeting with the Rays
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