Rays stadium: Let the debate begin
Chief security officer Ron Whitaker, center, explains to people waiting to sign up for tonight's hearing the procedure for handling the expected overflow crowd. [Lara Cerri | Times]
ST. PETERSBURG - I'm here in City Hall, more than 3½ hours before the public hearing on the Tampa Bay Rays' stadium and redevelopment proposal begins at 6:30 p.m., and already people are lining up for their turn to speak.
It kind of has the atmosphere of a big-time college basketball game –- without the pep bands or cheerleaders. Proponents of the Rays' plan, mainly from the group Fans For Waterfront Stadium, are expected to be wearing white. Opponents, those associated with the group Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront, will be dressed in red.
There's not a lot at stake tonight. Though perhaps 200 residents and business owners are expected to sound off on the Rays' proposal, the eight-member City Council will not make any decisions. Instead, they'll simply listen, and then (eventually) go home.
I'll check in later this afternoon with an update and then be blogging live starting at 6:30 p.m. I plan to answer some questions as well if you leave them in the comments field.
-- Aaron Sharockman, Times Staff Writer
4 p.m. update -- About 60 people have signed up to speak so far, and people are continuing to trickle into City Hall. The council, meanwhile, already is in session. The chamber virtually is empty right now; the discussion is focused on next year's city budget.
6:25 p.m. update -- It's game time. The City Council chamber is full as is one of the first two overflow rooms in City Hall. It looks like people are going to be headed to a nearby church if they want to watch the debate. As of now, about 80 people have signed up to speak. Many more want to....but just don't want to wait possibly four or five hours for their turn.
A group of about 100 people, largely union workers, are standing outside City Hall in white (Rays) shirts. The Rays provided the shirts, but people we talked to said they came on their own."We're the silent majority," said Steven Maslo, a 37-year-old plumber from St. Petersburg. The Rays' plan, he said, is "nothing but money for downtown St. Petersburg."
6:40 p.m. update -- The first two speakers sum up the kind of night we're expecting: "When the Rays decided to move to Port Charlotte, they turned their back on the city of St. Petersburg," said Caesar Civitella, who is against the Rays' proposal.
And Kenny Locke, founder of Fans For Waterfront Stadium: "From a baseball perspective it absolutely makes sense," Locke said. "This ownership group has delivered on every promise on its made since its been here."
As we said earlier, every seat in the council chamber is full --- except one. Mayor Rick Baker, who has been absent from most of the stadium debate, is also absent from tonight's public hearing. He said earlier he has a previous engagement at Eckerd College.
6:55 p.m. update -- One of the things I want to try to do tonight is correct some of the misconceptions coming out tonight. St. Pete resident Rebecca Falkenberry just now said that the tax money used to build the new stadium -- the money coming from the redevelopment of Tropicana Field -- could be better used instead in the city's general fund. It may be better used there, but the money cannot be used there. Tropicana Field is in the city's downtown tax increment financing district. Without getting too technical, the tax money generated by the Tropicana redevelopment cannot be used on police officers or firefighters. It has to be used on capital projects in downtown, like roads, or the Mahaffey Theater, or the Pier.
For those keeping score, so far we've seen 12 speakers -- seven againist, and five for.
7:20 p.m. update -- Sorry for the lag. Computer problems (of course). There's been much debate tonight, on both sides, if the Rays' proposal constitutes using or raising local taxes. The short answer is no (to raising taxes) and yes (to using public money).
7:45 p.m. update -- Rays president Matt Silverman and senior vice president for development Michael Kalt just had their turn at the microphone. They were speakers no. 27 and 28. "We are early in the process," Kalt said. "We don't have all the answers. We readily admit that. But we do think this is a project that has tremendous potential for the city of St. Petersburg."
7:55 p.m. update -- A speaker just brought up the outstanding debt on Tropicana Field. It's worth a quick refresher. Including interest, there remains about $100-million in debt on Tropicana Field. Part of the debt is actually paid off by a state subsidy that matures in 2025. The local debt expires in 2016. By 2012, when the Rays want to open their new stadium, the local debt left outstanding is approximately $30 million.
8 p.m. update -- I'm going to spend the next 30 minutes or so working on the $.50 edition ($.25 if you live in Hillsborough). I'll be back in a bit.
8:20 p.m. update -- 1 Beach Drive. It's an addres we've heard a lot here tonight. And almost universally tied to people against the Rays' proposal. The address is Bayfront Tower, which sits across Central Avenue from Al Lang Field. We probably won't be able to see all the speakers' cards until Friday, but it will be interesting to see where they all lived, and how it impacts their view of the stadium proposal.
10 p.m. update -- Sorry guys. Got tied up in the newspaper story. It's 10 p.m. and the public hearing just wrapped up. 109 speakers in all. The final count --- about 70-or-so against, about 30-or-so for.
10:05 p.m. update -- So what do we take away from tonight? I think we realized this is going to be a fight to November if it gets there. Both sides are well organized and their talking points are poignant. I also think we noticed a little bit of blue collar, white collar divide tonight. The union support of the Rays' plan will no doubt be key if the team hopes to get their plans approved in November. The counterbalance is, of course, downtown homeowners, who appear most motivated against what the Rays are selling.
LAST UPDATE -- Thanks for following along everyone. If we learned nothing else tonight, it's that I need a new computer and to learn how to type faster. I haven't had a chance to sort through the comments for awhile, but if there's any questions there I can answer, I'll get at it first thing Friday. Thanks, Aaron