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Powerful group behind fairgrounds plan sees beyond Rays stadium

TAMPA — The Florida State Fairgrounds may not be the best location for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium, according to the business group that evaluated the team's future in the region.

But it does have a couple of things going for it: a prospective developer with a history of big-money deals and backers with political pull.

An attorney for a group hoping to bring a hotel and entertainment complex to the fairgrounds identified his client Tuesday as Republic Land Development of Fairfax, Va. The group is part of a family of companies that has developed and invested in real estate transactions nationally through the years valued at more than $4 billion, its Web site says.

David Mechanik, a land-use attorney working with Republic, said the company has been working for months on a conceptual development plan for up to 200 acres of the 350-acre fair property. He said it could include hotels and other retail development, along with a possible sports stadium.

He said that Republic has been working on the project since before the ABC Coalition released findings last fall that include the fairgrounds as one of five possible locations for a new Rays stadium. The timing is coincidental, he said.

An initial concept called for possible inclusion of a soccer stadium, similar to the amateur athletic complex proposed and dropped in recent years by Hills­borough County Commissioner Jim Norman. Mechanik said it is coincidental timing that the ABC Coalition came out with its report listing the fairgrounds as a Rays stadium option.

"Somebody could claim that that is a place-keeper for a baseball stadium," Mechanik said. "The size and shape are totally different. We certainly haven't proposed a baseball stadium."

But he said the soccer complex footprint could accommodate a baseball stadium instead.

Mechanik is a regular financial contributor to political campaigns. Republic also has enlisted real estate consultant and former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who has said that while it is not the plan, the site might make sense for baseball. They are working with WilsonMiller, the Naples-based design and engineering firm with a presence in Tampa, and Land Sharks, a commercial land brokerage.

Land Sharks recently joined the Duncan Cos., whose president is Ronnie Duncan, a former Pinellas County commissioner who left office in 2008. Duncan served on the subcommittee that evaluated and rejected the possibility of renovating the Rays' current stadium to make it more economically viable for the team.

He said that the Land Sharks employees are working in a consulting fashion, not as brokers, and that he has little involvement in the project. However, he said that, based on his understanding and the ABC Coalition's findings, the chances of putting a new Rays stadium at the fairground are "slim to none."

Mechanik said any proposal to develop part of the fairgrounds would keep the annual fair there. "Everything we would propose would involve keeping them and enhancing, to the extent that that is something appropriate, what is already there," he said.

The ABC Coalition listed three other stadium locations as the best options for a new Rays home due to demographic trends, potential fan attraction and corporate support. They include downtown Tampa, the area near Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and central Pinellas. The fairgrounds and downtown St. Petersburg, where Tropicana Field is located, were considered less favorably based on those same factors.

In recent weeks, reports have surfaced that groups have been working on potential stadium concept plans both at the fairgrounds and in downtown Tampa. Claire Clements, a Tampa developer behind the downtown project, has not disclosed what if any backers she has, but confirmed she is working on putting together an option should the Rays seek to leave St. Petersburg.

Florida State Fair Authority executive director Charles Pesano confirmed that he has had a couple of discussions with representatives of Republic. Largely, he said he has provided information about the Fair Authority's master plan.

He said the proposal is expected to get presented to the Florida State Fair Authority's governing board in April.

"My purpose has really been to provide history and background about our long-range plan, then I guess let them use their creative juices," Pesano said. "What they're proposing has a lot of elements to it that might fit with that. They also take some things to a different level."

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Powerful group behind fairgrounds plan sees beyond Rays stadium 02/25/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 7:38am]
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