Forum is cool to Rays' plan

A park is the first choice. Keeping Al Lang rates as No. 2.

By Cristina Silva, Times Staff Writer
Published March 7, 2008

In groups of 10, armed with markers and sugar cookies, more than 160 people gathered at the Mahaffey Theater on Thursday to plot the future of Al Lang Field.

Some got creative, drawing in trees, flowers and fountains along a map of the park. Others stood up and yelled ideas across a table. They wanted a sculpture garden, a sports complex, an outdoor theater, an open market.

"You could have Shakespeare in the park there," said Patt Drecchio.

"My choice is 100 percent parkland," said Pete Brown.

"No commercial, none," he said over and over.

The Rays will vacate the historic ball park when they move spring games to Port Charlotte next year. They have a plan: convert Al Lang into a $450-million major league stadium.

For one reason or another, it might not work out.

During their introductory remarks, city leaders urged residents to get creative and come up with alternatives.

"Think way outside the box," said Barbara Heck, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, which sponsored the forum.

Joyce McCarty suggested Al Lang remain a spring training site.

Beth Connor proposed the city steal the Morse Museum of American Art from Winter Park and open a new museum at Al Lang. Also, she wanted a baseball museum.

"I definitely want to see baseball there because of all the history," said Justin Elza.

Felix Fudge thought the Rays' plan sounded swell, but he was outnumbered by the propark people at his table.

"I didn't agree with my table," he announced to the room. "But it is a democracy."

At night's end, the city staff unofficially totaled the ideas.

Those in favor of converting Al Lang into a park won with only a slight edge over those in favor of keeping it just as it is.

Opponents of the Ray's proposed stadium said the message was clear.

"This was clearly a mandate for not having that stadium here," said Hal Freedman, a downtown resident who first asked the city to turn Al Lang into parkland in August. "The people have spoken."