It's still early innings

The best course is to continue to gather input and facts on a waterfront stadium.

By Rick Baker, St. Petersburg mayor
Published March 3, 2008

We are in the midst of a long community discussion about the Tampa Bay Rays' proposal to construct a major league stadium on the site of historic Al Lang Field. There will continue to be opportunities for residents to learn about the proposal and express their views. The Rays and the city have held public meetings, and we will hold more.

If a referendum is scheduled, the ultimate decision will rest with St. Petersburg voters. Al Lang is on the waterfront, and any long-term use of the property for a new stadium will require a majority vote.

While the stadium proposal is not the only significant issue our city is discussing, it is certainly an important one and warrants a deliberate and thoughtful review by me, City Council, business and community leaders and residents. Many on both sides of the issue have urged the council members and me to support their position immediately, and I understand and respect their passion for the issue and for St. Petersburg. I share their passion for our city.

But I believe the best approach is to gather and evaluate as much information as we can before making a recommendation to our community. This information is equally important to our citizens in their deliberations. Among the important items which we do not yet have are the financial details of the proposal and the specifics of the uses proposed for the Tropicana Field site. Will the mix at the Trop site provide such things as new and unique retail, parks, hotels, work force-level housing and an expanded job base? In a time of state revenue reductions, the present city budget has no room for increased funding of the baseball enterprise.

It also is important to review the impact the new stadium would have on our beautiful and vibrant downtown waterfront. The city is conducting a traffic and parking study to determine the potential impact of the traffic from 81 home games on places such as BayWalk, the Progress Energy Center for the Arts' Mahaffey Theater, the new Salvador Dali Museum and the waterfront residential towers. We also must consider the importance of our many downtown events, the largest being the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. We certainly do not want to jeopardize the success we have achieved in St. Petersburg's historic renaissance.

After receiving a final proposal from the Rays, completing an evaluation and considering community input, I will recommend to the City Council whether to schedule a referendum.

Baseball is important to St. Petersburg. Our attachment to the game began when the St. Petersburg Saints took on the Cincinnati Reds in 1908, and it has continued through decades of spring training featuring many major league teams. It culminated in a 20-year effort to obtain a major league franchise, an achievement and asset of which only 30 of America's 20,000 cities can boast. From Babe Ruth to Scott Kazmir, most baseball legends have been part of our city's rich history with the national pastime.

I believe we have an ownership group that is genuine in its desire to develop its franchise and be part of our community. The owners have recently invested millions of dollars of their money to improve the Trop, reached out to fans in many new ways, taken steps to develop a quality baseball product and demonstrated their commitment to our charities and community groups.

All of these efforts do not mean we should embrace the new stadium proposal if we ultimately decide it is not right for St. Petersburg. But they do mean we should give their ideas a fair review.

I consider it a positive statement that our ownership group thinks highly enough about our city that they would invest substantial time and money to develop a proposal for us to consider. I hope the team's leadership will listen to concerns from residents that they hear at their presentations and take steps to mitigate those concerns as they develop their final proposal.

I also hope the ownership will take steps to more closely identify the team with the city, which has also invested time, land, heart and money into the franchise. It is true that the Rays are the team for most of Florida, but certainly St. Petersburg has played a special role in its evolution.

My commitment is to gather as much information as I can on this proposal and make my recommendation to our citizens based upon what I feel is best for our collective future. If the proposal continues to move forward, its fate will be decided by all of us at election time. Should we reach that point I am confident in the wisdom of the voters in deciding our future, whichever way the vote goes.

Rick Baker is the mayor of St. Petersburg.