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Betting on baseball, risk and reward, 1986 vs. 2008

On a hot afternoon in July 1986, the St. Petersburg City Council placed a big bet that would be unimaginable today.

"It was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime chance,'' I wrote as a young City Hall reporter for the front page of the next day's St. Petersburg Times. "Thursday, St. Petersburg's City Council took it. The council voted 6-3 to build a domed stadium downtown that is promoted as the cornerstone of a new beginning for the city.''

That single vote eventually paid off, although the transformation did not unfold as smoothly or as quickly as envisioned. Downtown St. Petersburg became a more vibrant place over the years, and it eventually got a baseball franchise after the dome marked time hosting its share of flea markets, monster truck rallies and rock concerts. Now the city finds itself in the midst of another stadium debate. The Tampa Bay Rays are making a pitch for an iconic downtown waterfront stadium that would open the door for redevelopment on the Tropicana Field site that city leaders a generation ago would have instantly embraced.

In 1986 the city took a great risk. But even though the risks appear to be less in 2008, there is considerable skepticism about the Rays' proposal.

Back then, the City Council voted to build the dome entirely with public money. There was no guarantee the city would ever get a baseball team. There was no viable ownership group, only the unlikely alliance of the civic-minded parent of the local utility company and a Sarasota developer.

Several City Council members made short speeches before the vote. One stuck with me. The late J.W. Cate Jr. remembered riding a merry-go-round as a child and never reaching for a brass ring. I looked up his exact words again the other day.

"There's a brass ring there, my friends,'' Cate said just before the vote, "and I'm going to risk the thing this time.''

Fast-forward 22 years.

The Rays are in their 11th season, hold a long-term lease and own one of the best records in baseball after years of having one of the worst. The relatively new team owners have spent millions to refurbish the Trop, and they have followed through on promises to invest in the franchise. They are not publicly threatening to leave, but they want a new $450-million stadium to boost attendance that ranks at the bottom of the major leagues. They promise to invest $150-million and are seeking no tax increases or new public money to pay for it, only the extension of about $11-million a year in city tax dollars and county resort taxes being spent on the dome now. It would be a public-private partnership, and St. Petersburg would get an enormous redevelopment project as well.

So far, nobody is reaching for the brass ring.

The city is in a stronger position economically and politically than in the 1980s, but the initial public reaction is unenthusiastic at best and downright hostile in some neighborhoods.

Gov. Charlie Crist, a St. Petersburg resident, embraces the concept but is not campaigning for it. Mayor Rick Baker has not staked out a public position. The City Council and the Pinellas County Commission are skeptical. The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the Times' editorial board, full-throated stadium supporters in the 1980s, have yet to fully embrace the Rays' stadium plan.

Much of the public discussion is not about how much financial risk taxpayers should take on but whether any risk at all is acceptable. It's as though a new waterfront stadium and new retail, housing and office space at the Tropicana Field site are not worth talking about if they do not come for free.

Is St. Petersburg doing so well it doesn't need baseball or major redevelopment to consider itself a major-league city? Is there a fear of jeopardizing the downtown successes the last stadium gamble helped create?

"I think there's some complacency about what people see has been accomplished around here the last 10 years and maybe some false confidence that we have enough fuel in the tank for the next 10 or 20 years,'' said Steven A. Raymund, co-chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce's baseball task force and chairman of Tech Data Corp. of Clearwater, who so far is uncommitted. "My point is you can't rest on your laurels based on what has happened around here the last 10 years.''

Some people do have short memories.

More than 30 years have passed since the beginning of the quixotic quest for a major-league franchise. The Pinellas Sports Authority was formed in 1977 to build a stadium and acquire a team, and St. Petersburg offered in 1982 to lease the current Trop site for $1 a year. There were dramatic City Council votes on New Year's Eve in 1983 and 1984 to extend a stadium financing plan before the decisive 1986 vote to build. (My "I dig the stadium" plastic shovel from the November 1986 ground-breaking is still buried in a desk drawer.)

Now City Council members are feeling the heat from stadium opponents as a June 5 deadline approaches on starting the process to schedule a November referendum. A final council vote would not come until August. "There's a lot of red signs out there,'' council Chairman James Bennett said, "and we're seeing them.''

In 1986, there were a lot more than yard signs and a vocal group of angry voters. Most county commissioners remained opposed; St. Petersburg already had gone to court to prevent the county from backing out of the financing agreement. The stadium financing deal was going to expire. Tampa was working on plans for its own baseball stadium and had a more viable ownership group.

Days before the council vote, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth sent the city a telegram (a telegram!) warning that St. Petersburg was not among the top candidates for a franchise. George Steinbrenner, Tampa resident and New York Yankees owner, reportedly told a baseball committee that St. Petersburg was "nothing but a bunch of old folks over there and a rickety bridge to get there.''

Robert Stewart, a St. Petersburg City Council member then and the chairman of the Pinellas County Commission now, recalled the intensity of the pressure coming from all sides. He believes voters would not have approved the stadium in 1986, when the initial cost was $85-million. But he has no regrets about voting to build it.

"The dome was something we had to do,'' he said. "The difference now is that the main risk has been taken, and boy, it was a risk.''

Even as the dome was under construction, the debate continued. As St. Petersburg tried to lure the Chicago White Sox in 1988, a Tampa Tribune editorial argued the dome was being built "in an especially moribund" part of St. Petersburg that "puts one in mind of a particularly pinched Albanian village.'' The White Sox wound up getting a new stadium in Chicago after the Illinois governor literally stopped the clock one night until he convinced state legislators to approve the deal. (Who else still has a Florida White Sox T-shirt in their closet?) There were a string of similar disappointments involving expansion, the San Francisco Giants and other teams until the Rays finally were awarded in 1995.

The baseball battle between Tampa and St. Petersburg is long over; the Tribune editorial board has positive things to say now about the St. Petersburg waterfront stadium plan. Tampa Bay has a more regional feel, and St. Petersburg no longer has an inferiority complex.

In some ways, the 1986 stadium vote was one of desperation. The city's downtown was a depressing place. There were no major hotels. The Vinoy had been closed for years. The hotel that is now the downtown Hilton was closed and sold at a foreclosure auction. There were no downtown movie theaters, and the Bayfront Tower was the only high-rise condo along Beach Drive. There were few places to eat a nice meal. Red Lobster declined to move into the Pier, and it was a struggle to arrange financing for a downtown Winn-Dixie.

Now hot new restaurants and plans for a high-rise hotel, a new arts center including a gallery for renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly and significant hospital expansions are just part of the downtown mosaic.

"People love the city now,'' said Mayor Baker, who as a private lawyer in the 1980s worked as a volunteer to promote building the dome. "We love who we are. We love what we're doing. I think there's a fear we could mess that up.''

Granted, the dome and the Rays have not triggered significant redevelopment around the stadium's immediate area. But St. Petersburg would not be what it is without that public investment.

Without the dome, the Vinoy hotel probably would not have reopened in the early 1990s. The Bay Plaza development group would not have been interested in redeveloping large portions of downtown. While that effort ultimately collapsed more than a decade ago, it did assemble and clear several large pieces of downtown property. That created space for the BayWalk entertainment complex and one of the first condo high-rises that confirmed there was a market for the others that followed.

Of course, there have been other factors in downtown St. Petersburg's revival. The Florida International Museum with its popular traveling exhibits, the expansion of USF St. Petersburg and the ever-growing arts community played critical roles. But the vote to build the stadium was the primary catalyst.

"The dome, more than any single event, has led to the transformation of downtown St. Petersburg,'' Stewart said. "That a was a major statement of willingness to make a financial commitment with a huge faith factor. Thank heavens, it did work out.''

Now there is considerable sentiment that St. Petersburg does not need to take any more risks, however calculated. Conventional wisdom suggests the city can force the Rays to keep playing at the outdated Tropicana Field for at last another decade or even until the team's lease expires in 2027, which is unrealistic. Or that a stadium can be entirely privately financed, which is unrealistic in this market. Or that cities such as Orlando and Charlotte would not come courting the Rays for years, which is naive.

There also is little public discussion about the pitches from prominent developers to create the largest redevelopment in the city's history on the Trop site. Perhaps that's because the city is so alive with activity now that many long-time residents fear the traffic and other changes a new stadium and redevelopment would bring — even well before the details are clear.

"People who are against it at this point likely see the risk of harm that could be done to downtown as greater than the risk of not doing it,'' Baker said.

Yet the city is in a much better negotiating position than it was in 1986. The Rays' long-term lease should mean the team will have to give more to get a new stadium. The city, not the team, has been negotiating with the firms competing to develop the Trop site. And the political leadership at City Hall is stronger and more sophisticated.

In 1986, St. Petersburg still had a city manager form of government with a ceremonial mayor who was just another member of the City Council. Mayor Edward L. Cole Jr., a kindly retired pediatrician who would be defeated in a 1987 re-election bid, voted against the stadium. It wasn't entirely clear a majority of the council would support it until the night before the vote, when the Chamber of Commerce helped pack a public hearing with dome supporters.

Today, the city has a strong mayor form of government. Baker has been a shrewd negotiator on a variety of fronts, and the Rays' stadium plan is not going to advance without his approval. His unwillingness to so far publicly support the project seems unusual, yet it gives him additional negotiating leverage.

At the moment, the Rays face an uphill fight. There do not appear to be enough votes now on the County Commission to extend the 1 percent hotel bed tax allocated to the dome to help pay for the waterfront stadium. Even Stewart remains to be convinced. The City Council member who voted for the dome in 1986 is reluctant as a county commissioner in 2008 to commit $100-million in resort taxes toward a new stadium.

If everything comes together this summer and the St. Petersburg City Council schedules a November referendum, city voters still have the final say. They have a long history of rejecting big-ticket projects, including a bayfront convention center and the Pier Park festival marketplace in the early 1980s. The Rays fail to appreciate how protective residents are of the waterfront, even if the land in question always has been the site of a baseball stadium. And in an economic climate where the real estate market has hit bottom, gas approaches $4 a gallon and the city faces budget cuts, even extending existing dome payments to help pay for a new stadium is a hard sell.

Raymund, the Tech Data chairman, said he has not made up his mind yet about the project. But he suggested the city needs to look beyond recent successes, and he sees some potential deal breakers such as parking and financing as solvable.

"The real deal breaker is the vision for this city,'' he said, "and what you want it to be.''

In 1986, the St. Petersburg City Council placed a long-shot bet that eventually paid off in a domed stadium, a baseball franchise and downtown's rebirth. Ironically, that success has made the city far more cautious in the 2008 stadium debate even though it has a better hand to play. But the risk of standing pat now may be as significant as the one the city took back then in grabbing the brass ring.

Betting on baseball, risk and reward, 1986 vs. 2008 05/31/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 3, 2008 2:36pm]
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