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Black community's skepticism an obstacle for Tampa Bay Rays' plan

ST. PETERSBURG — Watson Haynes' childhood home sat near what became home plate.

There, in the predominantly black Gas Plant neighborhood, Haynes collected tadpoles and learned to fish. He was barely a man when it was reduced to rubble: churches, businesses, homes. The redevelopment launched in 1982 was meant to create jobs. But the jobs never came.

It's a history that the Tampa Bay Rays are trying to address as they pursue the redevelopment of Tropicana Field to help finance a new waterfront ballpark.

In recent months, the Rays, searching for allies wherever they can find them, have reached out to black ministers, leaders, politicians and families in the hopes of winning over those jaded by baseball's unkept promises of prosperity.

The debate is mired in emotion, economic frustration and corporate suspicion. But unlike before, when city leaders alone made the decision, the Rays plan needs voters' support and that has empowered the black community to demand more.

"These low-income families made a sacrifice," said the Rev. Robert Ward, of Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Childs Park, whose grandmother was displaced in the redevelopment. "They felt lost. Their neighborhood was gone."

The Rays acknowledge that winning over skeptics in the black community presents a special challenge, even as they downplay the significance of their outreach. The black community, or about 30 percent of the city's population, can be a powerful voting bloc when united.

"We are out trying to build support across a broad swath of St. Pete," said Michael Kalt, the team's point man on the stadium deal. "Like any other community that we address, we have to understand the sensitivity and the issues of that group."

Making contact

Since November, the Rays have cultivated a relationship with the St. Petersburg NAACP branch. They touched base with predominantly black neighborhoods such as Bartlett Park and Harbordale. They participated in a forum hosted by the African-American Voters Research and Education Committee. With the NAACP's support, the Rays met with a dozen black ministers May 19.

That same day, the Rays announced the team would pursue more minority hires and renew a $5,000 annual college scholarship program for minorities that Kalt said previous team owners had let lapse.

But the most significant part of the announcement was essentially symbolic: the Rays agreed to advocate for affordable housing and minority businesses if the Tropicana site is redeveloped.

"It is the responsibility of everyone to ensure there is a chance to create a real critical mass of economic opportunity," Kalt said.

The Rays would have no official role in hiring and leasing decisions in the Tropicana redevelopment. That would be up to the buyer, city officials said.

That worries some black leaders, who say they're happy for the prominent ally but know its limits.

"Unless there is something in writing that says that this deal has some kind of intrinsic benefit for the African-American community, it is not going to get their support," said Haynes, a minister at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church.

Lingering resentment

There are other concerns. Why the team's sudden interest in diversity? None of the Rays top 13 executives is African-American or female. Others wonder why the Rays are so set on redeveloping an area that was created only two decades ago.

Back then, City Hall built the stadium hoping to attract a Major League team.

City officials predicted baseball would lead to new hotels, restaurants and other business opportunities for the predominantly black neighborhoods that border Tropicana Field. It didn't happen.

"The community was given a raw deal and was fully taken advantage of," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "Now, average blacks just do not trust that the city will do anything meaningful in terms of making sure black business owners are included."

Then there are black business owners such as Jeff Smith, of Tropical Smoothie Cafe in South Pasadena. Smith, 39, catered a few Rays spring training events, even as he mistakenly blamed the team for the Gas Plant's demise.

It wasn't until a recent NAACP meeting that he learned the Rays did not exist when the city voted in 1982 to raze the Gas Plant area. Smith now supports the new stadium.

"It's different now," he said. "I don't see anyone being taken out of their homes."

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com

or (727) 893-8846.

Black community's skepticism an obstacle for Tampa Bay Rays' plan 05/23/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 2:08pm]

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