Saturday, January 20, 2018
Business

Can Oldsmar become the Rays' new home?

OLDSMAR — To city officials in this 14,000-resident community — a place of historic bungalows, civic parades, a renowned BMX Supercross facility and a new zipline course — it is not a shock-the-world movement.

It is real.

Oldsmar is among the sites being considered by the Tampa Bay Rays, who are studying possibilities for a new stadium in either Pinellas or Hillsborough counties.

"Initially, some people just laugh at this concept,'' said Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis, who added the city had its initial contact with the Rays about three years ago. "Then when they look closer, they usually say, 'Wow, it does have a lot of positives.'"

The proposal involves 88.4 undeveloped acres of land, owned by Tampa Bay Downs, just west of Race Track Road, which straddles the Pinellas-Hillsborough county line. The site is 1.3 miles from the west end of Westchase, which has about 21,000 residents and already is bracing for this winter's opening of a 155,000-square-foot Costco store near the development's east entrance.

A CSX line runs by the site, causing Bevis to wonder whether the railroad could be adapted to future light rail that he says is sorely needed for any future stadium projects.

Theoretically, public money could be used in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to fund the Oldsmar project, a regional benefit that no other site can offer. But it is not near the bustle of a downtown urban center and stadium traffic could be a major issue.

"I just don't think it's feasible or practical at all,'' said Westchase resident Reinier Cruz, a Rays season-ticket holder since 2006. "It could be a nightmare for our community. To me, it looks like some sort of political ploy. Nobody is taking this seriously.''

Actually, some residents are intrigued.

"To think I could walk to a Rays game from my house, or ride my bicycle, I think that would be awesome,'' Westchase resident Anthony Malafronte said. "I have an open mind. I think it could work. As long as it's not just a stadium. If they bring restaurants and other entertainment, things you could do year-round, I think it could work.

"Of course, there would be increased traffic. But it's not like every car would be headed up Linebaugh Avenue (the major east-west road through Westchase). They would be coming from all directions.''

Oldsmar City Manager Bruce Haddock said that's one of the site's biggest advantages.

Besides being a potential compromise choice between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, an Oldsmar site could be approached from the Veterans Expressway feeding onto Hillsborough Avenue/Tampa Road, a major thoroughfare, plus a variety of directions from Pinellas. It would provide much easier access from Pasco and Hernando counties.

"Remember, too, that during the Tampa Bay Downs (horse) racing season, particularly on (Kentucky) Derby Day, there's a lot of traffic descending upon that area,'' Haddock said. "I doubt people in Westchase even know that's going on. They are insulated from it. So I don't think traffic will be an issue. It's a very good location.''

Poor location has been an ongoing criticism of Tropicana Field, the Rays' home in St. Petersburg since the 1998 expansion season. But the Tropicana Field site also is being considered, and the city of St. Petersburg clearly wants to keep the Rays nearby.

When an initial story about the Rays' possibilities in Oldsmar was published in April, Kevin King, chief of staff for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, promptly dismissed the idea.

"If the Rays want to alienate St. Petersburg and Tampa, it may be ideal,'' King told the Tampa Bay Times. "To me, Oldsmar's like Georgia.''

Without missing a beat, a few weeks later, Bevis jokingly presented a jar of Georgia peach jam to Kriseman at a Mayors' Club gathering of Pinellas County leaders.

"I think he (King) kind of made his own point because it's the same distance between Point A and Point B as it is between Point B and Point A,'' Bevis said. "It takes just as long for people in North Pinellas to get to St. Petersburg as the reverse … and it's a pain in the butt to get to Tropicana Field.

"That kind of thinking shows the disconnect in this county. You look at the demographics of north county and it's 1.2 million people with an average income between $50,000 and $75,000. Lots of millennials and lots of corporate people. A lot of criteria the Rays might find attractive.''

The Rays have been reticent to speak about specific sites.

When asked about Oldsmar's site, the Rays deferred to a previously issued statement from Melanie Lenz, the organization's senior vice president of strategy and development, which said, "We are committed to taking a fresh look at all possibilities in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in our search for a new ballpark site. We will utilize our ballpark vision process document as a guide to help us determine the pitch perfect site.''

How perfect could an Oldsmar site be for the Rays?

Some residents can't even wrap their heads around that concept.

But what if it actually happened?

"I can't imagine it, but it would help business for sure,'' said Khalil Sadegh, who has owned an Oldsmar restaurant, Daddy's Grill, since 1995. "We have a good lunch crowd, but it's mostly retirees or people who work in the area. A baseball stadium would bring something completely different. It would change Oldsmar. I hope it would be for the better.''

As for Bevis, who moonlights as a country music radio disc jockey on the weekends, he's happy to not be settling for the same old tune.

"Whatever you do, not everyone will be happy,'' Bevis said. "But I've heard from people who commended us for sticking our hat in the ring, for thinking outside the box.

"We just wanted to be under consideration and make the list, which we've done. We think we have plenty to offer the Rays. Hopefully, we make the short list. If you don't consider all the sites that are available, I don't think you're doing your job. Whatever happens, at least we tried.''

Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]

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