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Some Rays fans eye airport for stadium

ST. PETERSBURG — People are bringing up Albert Whitted Airport again, and this time they're talking about a baseball stadium.

It's owned by the city. It's losing money. It's on the water. It won't be confused as a park.

In fact, at 110 acres, Albert Whitted has everything Al Lang Field lacked as a prospective home of the Tampa Bay Rays. There could even be room for parking garages.

But could it really be an option?

"I've heard it suggested more than I thought I would," said Jeff Lyash, the Progress Energy executive who leads the community group studying sites for a ballpark. "I expected, given the controversy, I wouldn't hear that one at all."

Lyash's group, formally called A Baseball Community, hasn't begun to evaluate specific sites. And it's unclear how much vetting Albert Whitted will receive.

But airport activists are bristling that it's even being mentioned.

The idea of a new stadium "already has got people in the city and the surrounding area upset," said aviator Jack Tunstill, one of Albert Whitted's strongest supporters. "Now they want to add this to it. These people have no comprehension of what they're talking about."

Albert Whitted Airport has been targeted before.

In 2002 and 2003, the city considered plans to either close the airport or eliminate one of its two runways. In both scenarios, the airport property — which sits on a man-made peninsula jutting into Tampa Bay — would become a city park and residential neighborhood.

Voters instead overwhelmingly chose to preserve the airport "forever" by amending the city charter.

But the ballot initiative was not necessarily overwhelming; nor was it forever.

Out of 172,000 registered city voters, a little over 35,000 actually voted on the charter amendment, and about 26,000 favored it. It would simply take another city vote to reverse course.

Add to the story a new multi­million-dollar terminal building that has not found a tenant for its restaurant space, and a flailing local economy. The airport, which is supposed to cover its own costs, required a $434,000 city subsidy this year and more than $2.2-million since 2003.

Airport critics often describe it as a publicly financed luxury, as it is rarely used by the public.

"It would be an incredible place for a stadium," said Paul Fenton, a Rays season ticket holder for the past three seasons. "They almost closed it before. They can almost close it again."

But turning a nearly 80-year-old airfield into a baseball stadium would not be easy.

Practically. Or politically.

The city opened its $4-million terminal a year ago and is expected to break ground on a $2.2-million control tower next year. Scrapping either facility would be a major change, of course.

Moreover, the Federal Aviation Administration says it would not allow it.

The FAA has poured almost $50-million into airport improvements in recent years, and the city couldn't just pay that back, says FAA official Rusty Chapman. Each grant obligates the city to another 20 years of airport operations, though some people suggest that the FAA could be swayed.

Any change would also require the approval of city voters.

What if the city recycles the idea of closing one runway?

Albert Whitted has two runways, one that runs east-west and another north-south.

Closing either creates challenges.

The east-west runway is used for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and also is linked to the new terminal building. It fields 70 percent of the airport's 80,000 yearly takeoffs and landings, said city airport manager Rich Lezniak.

The north-south runway sits at the eastern edge of the airport property. Closing it could save the Grand Prix and the bulk of flights, but building a stadium there might make little sense.

A stadium, if the FAA would sign off, would be bordered by Tampa Bay to the east, the airport to the north and west, and a city sewage treatment facility to the south. Removing the sewage treatment plant would cost $55-million to $65-million, according to a 2002 city study.

"It's always the politicians and their friends who happen to be real estate people who want the property," said Don Morris, a longtime airport supporter who keeps a plane at Albert Whitted. "But the citizens were very clear. They want it there as an airport."

Mayor Rick Baker agrees. Baker, who in his first term proposed closing one of the runways, said there are too many hurdles to seriously consider the airport as a site for a baseball stadium.

"I don't think that Albert Whitted is a viable option," he said.

Some Rays fans eye airport for stadium 11/20/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 26, 2008 4:31pm]
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