Rays park hearing draws a full house

The stadium's financing, potential for jobs were on the minds of more than 200 people.

By Aaron Sharockman, Times Staff Writer
Published February 22, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - Opponents and supporters unleashed their first impressions of the Tampa Bay Rays' $1-billion stadium and redevelopment plan to the City Council on Thursday, during a sometimes fiery and sometimes light-hearted debate that is likely only to intensify.

At least 200 people converged on City Hall for the first of three public hearings to discuss the Rays' complicated downtown megadevelopment.

Proponents came dressed in white.

Opponents wore red.

The hearing took on all the drama of an all-out election fight, and the meeting dragged well into the night.

Rays officials provided free white T-shirts and buttons to their supporters, including many local union tradesmen working on the new All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

Opponents, who came in different shades of red, argued that the T-shirt giveaway may violate state election laws.

The groups jockeyed for position in speaking order and even for seats in the council chamber. The first speaker, Caesar Civitella, was at City Hall shortly after 1 p.m. for the 6:30 p.m. meeting.

"When the Rays decided to move (their spring training) to Port Charlotte, they turned their back on the city of St. Petersburg," said Civitella, when he finally got his say.

Rays president Matt Silverman and a handful of team officials and supporters spent the night tucked into one of the city's first-floor meeting rooms. Opponents waited in another meeting room next door.

The size of the turnout was expected. The parity among the groups may have been a surprise.

Among the speakers to the council, opponents outnumbered supporters more than 2-to-1. Many lived in Bayfront Tower, a condominium across the street from Al Lang Field.

But nearly 100 local union workers stood on the steps of City Hall in support of the Rays.

Robert Beann, a 49-year-old St. Petersburg plumber, addressed the City Council for the first time in his life on Thursday. With worn-through jeans and an unshaven face, Beann stood at the microphone and asked council members to support the project.

"I don't live on Beach Drive," he said. "I make my living doing construction. If you build the park, you put people to work. I'm worried about feeding my family."

Council members listened to the speakers, but said little themselves. The council will be asked in June whether or not to schedule a citywide referendum.

Mayor Rick Baker, who has been noticeably absent from the stadium discussion, did not attend Thursday's hearing. Baker said earlier in the day that he had a scheduling conflict.

Opponents attacked several aspects of the plan, from the secrecy of the negotiations between the city and the team last year, to the environmental and traffic impacts of a new stadium at Al Lang Field. They also questioned the proposed financing plan, which relies heavily on the development of the publicly owned Tropicana Field site.

"I don't like being taken advantage of by the team's owners," said Robert Bedford, a city resident and professor at the University of South Florida. "This proposal is all about the Rays' owner increasing the value of their franchise."

The last speaker, number 109, brought up the finances again. Community activist Karl Nurse wanted the city to be sure it got the best possible deal.

"We can't afford to guess wrong on this," Nurse said.

With that, the crowd thinned, the cleaning crews retook the halls and life went back to normal at City Hall.

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The next public hearings on the Rays' redevelopment plans are scheduled for April 10 and May 22.