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'Go-to' guy's newest mission: help the Rays

Jeff Lyash, Progress Energy Florida president and CEO, aims to lead A Baseball Community to a plan for a new Rays baseball park. 

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Jeff Lyash, Progress Energy Florida president and CEO, aims to lead A Baseball Community to a plan for a new Rays baseball park. 

ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida International Museum was on the verge of collapse when Jeff Lyash quietly pitched in to help secure a rare Vatican exhibit and save the downtown fixture.

He gave furniture and raised funding for the Florida Orchestra when the group was struggling financially.

And when police slashed tents belonging to two dozen homeless people near downtown, Lyash helped broker a solution that was later praised by the nation's homeless czar as a national model.

Since moving to the area five years ago to accept a high-ranking position at Progress Energy Florida, Lyash, 46, has become the go-to man for local leaders in a jam. His latest rescue mission puts him under an intense spotlight: save the Tampa Bay Rays.

But critics question how open Lyash, a corporate leader with a penchant for working behind the scenes, will be.

"Up to this date, I think it has been very tight lipped," County Commission Chairman Bob Stewart said last week before Lyash appointed him to the group he's leading to help the Tampa Bay Rays. "Something that has this much of a public consequence, it cannot be done totally behind closed doors."

Mayor Rick Baker handpicked Lyash in June to lead the effort after the Rays failed to build sufficient public support for a new stadium on the downtown waterfront. Lyash's mission: come up with a new plan and build more business and community support for the team.

Lyash named the 11-member group A Baseball Community and said he will abide by the Sunshine Law as if it were a public body.

"My boss, to the extent that I have one, is the community," said Lyash recently.

He named Judy Mitchell, president of Peter Brown Construction in Clearwater, co-chairwoman of ABC and the group's spokeswoman. He announced those and other new details Wednesday in the private confines of the St. Petersburg Times editorial board instead of at a public news conference.

"I'm not a news conference kind of guy," Lyash explained.

A mechanical engineering nerd and onetime government wonk, Lyash grew up in Central Pennsylvania in tiny Shamokin, the son of a coal miner. For years, he was a "long suffering, miserable, often disappointed" Rex Sox fan before converting to the Rays. (He's a big fan of Scott Kazmir and Carl Crawford.)

After graduating from Drexel University in Philadelphia, Lyash worked at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a project manager and senior resident inspector.

He was hired by Progress Energy in 1993 and worked his way up the company ladder. In 2003, Lyash relocated from North Carolina to Seminole with his wife and two adult children to accept the newly created role of vice president-energy delivery in St. Petersburg.

At the age of 44, he was named chief executive of Progress Energy Florida in 2006.

Even before the promotion, he courted favor with St. Petersburg's most powerful leaders.

He and Baker become close when they hammered out a $6.2-million naming rights pact with Progress Energy for the Mahaffey Theater in 2006.

"I was very impressed by him. He seemed like a very smart business guy," said Baker.

Lyash helped smooth out a spat between city leaders and the Florida Orchestra in 2007, a compromise that led to a new downtown headquarters for the musicians and further cemented St. Petersburg College's emerging role as an arts leader.

"He opened the doors. He didn't make the decisions, but he facilitated the process," said Jim Gillespie, former orchestra board chairman.

Last year, Lyash used his connections to line up volunteers, donors and government leaders behind a new tent city to be run by Catholic Charities. The project, Pinellas Hope, recently scored a state grant to expand.

"If he recommends something to the community, he realizes that it is his reputation that he is putting out to the community," said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities.

Lyash will be the first person to say he doesn't deserve sole credit for these accomplishments. And he's right.

But between his fully stocked proverbial Rolodex and his ranking atop one of the region's most important companies, leaders say, Lyash's involvement on a project is a sign of likely success.

"He is one of my top five people," said Carl Kuttler, president of St. Petersburg College, who works with Lyash on civic projects. "Some people yell, and no one hears them. He could whisper and you would hear him."

One of Lyash's toughest tasks could be winning over a demographic unfamiliar with his white-collar credentials and fabled charisma: the taxpayers who could end up paying for much of the stadium.

It's the cries of these average Joes that derailed the Rays $450-million plan for a stadium at Al Lang Field by 2012. The biggest complaints were that the Rays were moving too quickly without enough public input.

Lyash already has the first grievance covered: no tight deadline hangs over the stadium discussions. The transparency hurdle hasn't been as easy to tackle.

The selection process was so shrouded in secrecy even some board members were left guessing who the finalists were. Lyash chose from 300 nominations.

Gregory Johnson, president of the Pinellas County Urban League, said he assumed he didn't make the cut after no one called him.

"I was disappointed," he said. Then Lyash called on Tuesday. Johnson was in.

As for concerns that Lyash must answer to the man who picked him, Baker said he has no desire to micromanage. "I will try to be a resource. I won't drive the process," he said.

And Lyash is quick to assure skeptics that he is his own man.

"When (Baker) asks me to do something, I take it very seriously," he said. "But in the end I do it or I don't do it because I think it's right."

'Go-to' guy's newest mission: help the Rays 09/04/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 7, 2008 10:08am]
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