ST. PETERSBURG — For months, the heated debate over whether to build a baseball stadium on the downtown waterfront dominated dinnertime conversations and chatter at City Hall.
Backers said it would draw tourists and keep Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg.
Opponents claimed it would ruin the waterfront.
The year was 1940, and the ballpark was Al Lang Field, now the site of the Tampa Bay Rays proposed downtown stadium.
Today, as elected officials debate the merits of building a $450-million stadium, the question of whether voters would approve a new stadium along downtown's distinctive waterfront has re-emerged.
Each side is using the waterfront as a central part of its pitch, and have made it part of their names: Fans for Waterfront Stadium and Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront.
The Rays say a waterfront location would attract hordes of new fans and rejuvenate downtown. Opponents say a hulking new stadium would destroy the waterfront.
When the City Council voted Thursday to keep the stadium project moving forward, Chairman Jamie Bennett warned the Rays of the love affair residents have with the waterfront: "It's engraved on their heart: Protect that waterfront."
St. Petersburg resident Rand Moorhead agrees. "The Rays have hit a nerve," said Moorhead, 50, who lives in the Central Oak Park neighborhood. "The waterfront is sacred here."
But not always.
A recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll found the top concern among St. Petersburg voters was the stadium's cost to taxpayers. Its location on the waterfront was ranked fifth.
A greater percentage found the waterfront location to be a plus.
History suggests St. Petersburg voters are committed to protecting the downtown waterfront — but it depends on the situation.
In the original Al Lang Field debate, voters opted to expand the city's downtown baseball diamond instead of moving the ballpark to a less-coveted location in Woodlawn.
Since then, voters have gone back and forth, depending on the project.
"You have to think about how the stadium would impact the whole city, not just the waterfront," said Sandra Martinez, 22, a Jungle Prada voter who hasn't made up her mind about the stadium.
Waterfront has a history of change
In 1905, the downtown waterfront was a collection of battered buildings, scattered fish nets and deteriorating docks.
William Straub, an early editor and publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, rounded up a group of powerful businessmen and pitched his plan: Let's buy up the waterfront and donate it to the public to preserve it forever.
By the time Straub died in 1939, his vision had been realized. Patches of open green parks hugged downtown. Changing it takes the consent of voters.
For decades, city leaders debated the definition of public land. In time, they gave away chunks of the downtown park system to promote growth and commerce. Up sprouted the Museum of Fine Arts, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, the Mahaffey Theater, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the Dali Museum.
When given the chance to chime in, voters went along every time.
But in 1982, voters struck down a waterfront hotel and convention center.
Two years later, they voted 2-1 against Pier Park, a $72-million waterfront entertainment complex, even as city officials and community leaders, including the St. Petersburg Times editorial page, lauded the proposal.
More than a decade later, in 1997, more than 70 percent of voters approved a 15,000-square-foot expansion of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club.
And in 2003, residents choose to keep Albert Whitted Airport instead of replacing it with 60 acres of parkland. The plan would have more than doubled the amount of waterfront green space in St. Petersburg, but opponents argued it was merely a ploy that would lead to more condominium and retail development.
Past may not be the best clue to the future
Will Michaels, president of St. Petersburg Preservation, said history is not always a good indicator of what would happen in November if the Rays' proposal is put before voters.
"What we are talking about now is a much greater project than any of these other buildings," said Michaels, who opposes the stadium. "It is just going to dominate and tower over the rest of the waterfront area."
But the Rays and their supporters argue the waterfront location is exactly what makes the new stadium so attractive. The stadium would have stands facing the waterfront to take advantage of the prime views. Home run balls would plop into the bay. The Rays also are considering allowing the public to use part of the baseball field as a park in the off season.
"It is the next logical step for the waterfront," said Kenny Locke, founder of Fans for Waterfront Stadium.
Others are not so sure.
Last week, Bennett said he wished the team had given the public a chance to decide where the new ballpark should go.
"The people historically in this city," he said, "they really have a problem with giving up the waterfront."
Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.