Front man for group trying to snare Rays has rocky past

TAMPA — Ryan Neubauer has had many experiences in his 31 years: serving as a congressional intern, testifying in a political corruption trial, trading snakes over the Internet.

He has worked as a Milwaukee alderman's aide, a community organizer, a software consultant and a temporary worker studying ways to make affordable housing green.

Last summer, he launched a website — BuildItDowntownTampa.org — touting the merits of relocating the Tampa Bay Rays to downtown Tampa as discussions about the team's future heated up. Today, barely three years after arriving in the area, he's the front man for an investors' group that wants to turn his pitch into reality if the Rays leave St. Petersburg.

"I never asked to be the front man, but because of my grass roots organizational skills I was put at the point," he explained.

Those who know him offered a range of reactions to Neubauer's sudden, high-profile role.

Angel Sanchez, a former Milwaukee alderman who gave Neubauer one of his first jobs, isn't surprised by his new initiative.

"Does he have the capacity to assemble a team? Absolutely," Sanchez said.

Pat Braynon, director of the Miami-Dade Housing Finance Authority, which Neubauer left after a brief stint as a temporary worker, didn't necessarily agree.

"I was surprised," she said. "When we heard about that, we thought, 'That was different. That was interesting.' "

Neubauer grew up in Green Bay, Wis., the son of a food company executive.

While in high school, he landed an internship with Toby Roth, then a Republican representative. He liked the Washington, D.C., vibe — not just the politics, but the district's diverse neighborhoods, cultural offerings and advanced transit system.

"I thought, 'This is the way cities are supposed to work,' " he said. With that, a career-long interest in urban planning and a belief in the importance of bustling city centers was born.

As a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Neubauer worked as a community organizer for a nonprofit group. He nabbed an internship with longtime city Alderman Paul Henningsen, and volunteered on his re-election campaign.

"I think he was ambitious," Henningsen said. "He wanted to be in public service somehow, helping the public good."

Neubauer parlayed that work into a job as an aide to Sanchez, dropping out of Marquette a year shy of graduation. His new boss encouraged him to get involved in efforts to revitalize his largely Hispanic district, and he witnessed a wave of redevelopment.

In 2003, Neubauer was called as a federal witness against Henningsen, who was accused of fraud in connection with his re-election campaign.

Neubauer's name showed up in the memo line of several checks used as evidence at trial and he was asked to explain why, according to accounts in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper. He told the St. Petersburg Times last week that was how the campaign kept track of tasks performed and who carried them out. There was nothing nefarious, he said.

Unrelated to the trial, Neubauer filed for bankruptcy that same year. He blamed his troubles on credit card balances that got out of hand while in school.

When Sanchez was defeated in 2004, Neubauer joined a computer software consulting group. He and his wife later decided to raise their children in Florida's warmer climate.

He landed a temporary job with Miami's housing finance authority in early 2006. He largely was asked to research what other governments were doing to incorporate environmentally friendly practices into affordable housing, Braynon said.

The position was eliminated a little more than a year later, the agency concluding it was no longer needed. Neubauer filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, saying he was the victim of reverse discrimination.

His former employer strongly denied that in its response, which accused Neubauer of slow work and a bad attitude. It claims Neubauer was initially considered for a management position, but was given a lesser job when it was discovered that his resume wrongly stated he had a college degree.

Neubauer said in an e-mail at the time, and reaffirmed to the Times, that the mistake was inserted by a company he hired to polish his resume and went undetected by him.

"It was just a screwup," he said.

Braynon said she accepted Neubauer's explanation as plausible at the time. But in the months that followed, she wrote, "Mr. Neubauer's job performance failed to meet expectations."

He was also accused of using the office as a mailbox for a home-based exotic animal business, which Braynon said was discovered by happenstance.

"Boxes would come to him in the mail, and they would make noise," Braynon said.

Neubauer said he never had a business selling reptiles, but is a hobbyist who has used the Internet to collect and trade a small number of snakes and turtles.

The Human Relations Commission dismissed his complaint.

Neubauer and his wife decided they didn't want to raise a family in Miami and moved to the Tampa area about three years ago, first to Valrico and then Ybor City. His new digs rekindled an interest in urban planning, and he wanted to play a role in downtown revival while returning to computer consulting.

"Because we've made a decision to live and raise a family in downtown Tampa, I've wanted to play an active role downtown," he said.

His move to Central Florida coincided with the Rays beginning to float ideas for a new stadium in St. Petersburg.

A lifelong baseball fan, Neubauer said he quickly took an interest in the story of the Rays — their rough beginnings as a team, emergence as a World Series contender in 2008, and the new management group that appeared to make smart moves. It got him thinking.

With a few like-minded folks Neubauer declines to name, he launched his website. It argues the logic of moving the team to Tampa, the region's hub. In Tampa, he said, the team would draw more fans and business support.

A new stadium, he added, could provide the last piece that vaults downtown Tampa into the major leagues among urban centers. It would need to include plans for other redevelopment of shops and entertainment options, integrating it with the larger city, he said.

Bryan Maholm, a Pinellas County resident who does human resources work in downtown Tampa, said he initially visited Neubauer's website to sign a petition supporting the idea. Then, around the 2009 holidays, he asked Neubauer to get coffee.

"I just truly believe this is where they belong," Maholm said of the Rays. "I think Ryan honestly believes and is passionate about that as well."

John Prokop, a Tampa architect, found the website and told Neubauer he would like to help. The three met with Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio in March, though she told them she wasn't interested, Prokop said.

But Prokop said he is no longer assisting because his work and personal life got too busy and he could no longer provide pro bono help. He said he couldn't discuss the effort because he signed a nondisclosure agreement.

"I'll say this: He's good for baseball in this region," Prokop said. "It's good that he's been spurring the debate and poking people in the right places."

Neubauer's been mum on the details of his baseball stadium ambitions since his May 19 press release announcing an investment team. He won't divulge the backers, the land they're attempting to obtain or even who is helping with his website.

He said he hopes to soon announce creation of a community development corporation and that work toward that end is 75 percent complete.

"My role in this process will change from front man to support person, a role that I am more comfortable with in the long run," he said.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Stephen Nohlgren and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Front man for group trying to snare Rays has rocky past 07/04/10 [Last modified: Sunday, July 4, 2010 1:40pm]

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