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Tampa chamber agrees to take up Rays stadium debate

TAMPA — When the Tampa Bay Rays reached the World Series in 2008, Mayor Mike Nutter of Philadelphia picked up the telephone to propose a traditional wager with his counterpart in this region.

Let's see ... Tampa Bay ... that's area code 813, right?

"I told him I would be happy to place a bet,'' Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio recalled Thursday, "but to be on the safe side, I think you need to call the mayor of St. Petersburg.''

In a face-saving gesture of neighborly unity, Iorio eventually combined with then-St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard to pit coconut shrimp, stone crabs, key lime pie, a Cuban sandwich and Ybor City cigars against Nutter's cheesecake, Tastykakes, soft pretzels, mac-n-cheese and a Rocky statue.

That the Rays bring national recognition to the entire region, and not just St. Petersburg, is precisely why the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce will spend 2011 studying baseball stadium financing, chamber President Chuck Sykes said Thursday.

Seventeen years remain on the Tropicana Field contract, but the Rays eventually will leave the area without a new stadium, Sykes said in an interview.

At the moment, the Rays and St. Petersburg are at loggerheads over site selection.

Hillsborough officials are keeping hands off for fear of alienating St. Petersburg.

And mere mention of a new stadium riles taxpayers.

"The chamber intends to step into that void,'' Sykes said. "This is a big, complicated, emotionally charged topic. It will never be solved unless we can continue to have a conversation. If we don't, something real negative could happen and we will be sitting around looking for someone to blame.''

The chamber's executive committee proposed the stadium study last month. The full chamber board approved the idea Thursday.

A "caucus'' of 15 to 20 people will begin work in a few months and try to present a report by October, Sykes said.

They will examine stadium projects in other parts of the country to see what financing streams might work in Tampa Bay, with a particular eye toward private funding.

The chamber will steer as clear as it can from specific stadium sites, Sykes said, lest citizens view its work as a stalking horse for moving the team to Tampa.

And he wants Pinellas business executives to participate in the group.

"If I'm talking to (St. Petersburg Mayor) Bill Foster and he knows I'm not trying to get a stadium for Tampa, he's going to talk,'' Sykes said. "If Bill feels I'm not genuine, Bill is going to shut down.''

Foster could not be reached, but last month he declined to comment on the Tampa chamber study, given the city's stadium impasse with the Rays.

Beyond ways to raise money, the chamber group might examine how to scale down the cost of the project. A community group called the ABC Coalition recently proposed a retractable roof stadium with 37,000 seats that would cost at least $500-million.

That conforms with current stadium trends in Major League Baseball.

Sykes threw out one idea to pare costs: A smaller, fixed-roof venue, intimately shaped for baseball.

Abandoning the retractable roof could save something like $100 million, according to the ABC study.

Maybe the team could charge more per seat, and derive most of its income from advertising and television rather than placing so much focus on attendance, he speculated.

The chamber could also examine regional financing, he said, like an arrangement in Denver, where seven counties chipped in.

Sykes emphasized that these are just his own ideas. No agendas are set and nothing is off the table.

Much has been made of a Trop contract provision that forbids the team from negotiating with third parties about leaving the Trop before 2027. But the contract does not prevent the team from discussing generalities.

Sykes said the Rays probably will not play a central role in the chamber study.

"We might consult the Rays,'' he said, "but not on any specific plans that would cause the Rays to break that contract or move out.''

If the Chamber and the team worked hand in hand, he said, "it would be natural for people to think we are trying to figure out how taxpayers are going to pay for this, or think we are having back door conversations to get them to Tampa.''

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at nohlgren@sptimes.com

Tampa chamber agrees to take up Rays stadium debate 12/16/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 17, 2010 7:52am]

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