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Downtown St. Petersburg businesses ponder life without Rays

Ferg’s owner Mark Ferguson says the Rays should consider how downtown has changed.

Ferg’s owner Mark Ferguson says the Rays should consider how downtown has changed.

ST. PETERSBURG — Ferg's Sports Bar was an abandoned gas station before the promise of Major League Baseball fueled Mark Ferguson's dream.

A dozen years since the Rays' first season, his business across First Avenue S from Tropicana Field remains the symbol of baseball's buoying power for local enterprise.

Now Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg says the Rays won't stay at the Trop — or even downtown — through the end of their contract, which runs to 2027.

What would it mean to businesses nurtured in the shadow of the stadium to lose the team?

Russ Bond, general manager at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, the historic hotel rejuvenated by the promise of baseball, has had to ask, "What if?"

Bond estimates 5 percent of his business stems from visiting teams and fans coming to town for 81 games a year, often during the slow part of the season when it really counts. Losing the team from downtown "would be a huge loss, obviously for our city, and for our hotel," he said

John Long, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, says a Rays departure would reverberate: "Not having baseball in downtown really impacts everyone."

But it's hard to document losses.

John Warren, who owns Savannah's Cafe at 1113 Central Ave., next to the stadium, said he sees boosted traffic from games, but also found he had to design parking to keep his regulars from being pushed away.

"For a restaurant that isn't a sports bar, it is difficult to juggle separate markets," he said. "The last thing any restaurant wants is to have their regular customers have to wade through a large crowd to get to the door."

Still, he says, for the Rays to leave would be an insult.

Would it be an expensive insult?

A report released by a business group called the ABC Coalition in January said visiting teams and out-of-town fans generate $137 million to $213 million a year in direct tourism spending, part of the team's annual economic impact estimated at $298 million.

But some sports economists would say losing the team wouldn't make a great deal of difference.

Skeptics argue that reports about a team's benefit often confuse new spending with spending pulled from other local activities, economist Andrew Zimbalist writes. Supporters attribute spending by out-of-town visitors to a stadium regardless of why they come. They omit negative effects from taxes that finance construction and operation of a stadium. Even under the best circumstances, Zimbalist says, academic studies show any economic effect is modest.

Zimbalist acknowledges that in the case of the Rays moving across the bay, the money may simply shift from one downtown to the other. There would be isolated pain for nearby bars and restaurants, downtown hotels and small businesses that rent out parking lots on game days.

Melissa Vanderlaak, who manages the Simple Living store at 1100 First Ave. N, rents spaces for $10 to $20 each. That can mean more than $19,000 a year for the store.

No one wants to revisit the 1970s, when businesses and visitors left downtown for the suburbs. Revitalization efforts have slowly rebuilt the city center, which had a 2009 population of 7,900. The taxable assessed value around Tropicana Field grew from $108 million in 1982 to $910 million in 2009, according to Rick Mussett, a senior administrator in economic development for the city.

But even when baseball first landed, it didn't create the impact locals thought it might.

After the Rays' first season in 1998, a freshly beautified Central Avenue nearby sported empty new sidewalks, open lots and vacant storefronts. Some businesses that opened in expectation of a baseball bonanza had already closed.

Still, ground broke that year on two high rises on Beach Drive, Florida Power moved its headquarters downtown and the Holocaust Museum relocated from the beaches.

Ken Heretick, a downtown commercial real estate broker who has been in the bay area since 1978, says that while the Rays' arrival "definitely helped, a lot of this was going on anyway."

To a guy like Steve Westphal, downtown is so much more than baseball. Westphal operates Parkshore Grill and 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House on Beach Drive, and he opened the Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge at Albert Whitted Airport this year as well.

He loves the team, but he didn't open his restaurants to cater to Rays fans.

"If we have baseball or if we don't, we'll thrive," Westphal says.

Ferguson, the 53-year-old restaurateur, has a plan for a post-Tropicana world. He would open a second Ferg's, as close to the new ballpark as he could.

He says he hopes the original, with its 64 TV screens and parties ("a lot of parties") could be a destination by itself.

But Ferguson wants the Rays to take another look at downtown. It's vibrant, younger. Light rail could carry fans to a smaller, more sophisticated ballpark.

"Every year we do a little better," he says. "And hopefully the Rays will start drawing more people to the games, and they'll change their mind about being in downtown St. Pete."

Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report. Becky Bowers can be reached at bbowers@sptimes.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.

Downtown St. Petersburg businesses ponder life without Rays 06/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 24, 2010 11:31am]
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