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Baseball committee considers three possible Hillsborough sites to replace Tropicana Field

Should the future home of the Tampa Bay Rays be in downtown Tampa? Or the West Shore district? Or even the fairgrounds in eastern Hillsborough County?

Those three options — along with potential sites in downtown St. Petersburg and mid Pinellas County — are all being considered by a panel studying whether the Rays should leave Tropicana Field for a new home.

Progress Energy Florida CEO Jeff Lyash, chairman of A Baseball Community, said Thursday that the city-commissioned group is examining potential sites in those five "trade areas" and anticipates detailed reports on each region by August.

The analysis would consider income levels in surrounding neighborhoods, population within a 30- to 45-minute drive and availability of land.

"We're not looking at any particular site," insisted Lyash.

The broad-brush approach, however, pours fuel on a long-standing debate between those who argue Tropicana Field is too remote to draw a large number of fans and those supportive of keeping the Rays in St. Petersburg given the drive of its civic leaders to bring professional baseball here 11 years ago.

Up until this point, even the Rays have avoided considering Hillsborough County as a viable option. On Thursday, Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt declined to discuss the merits of specific sites, but the team has said it prefers a location closer to the population center of the Tampa Bay area.

"We've cooperated with them for the past year, and we're eagerly awaiting their findings on a wide variety of topics, not just (the stadium study)," Kalt said.

A Baseball Community also is studying ways to increase fan and business support for the Rays.

Earlier this week, Rays president Matt Silverman reacted to disappointing attendance in a World Series rematch between the Rays and Philadelphia Phillies, calling the lack of fans in the stands "bewildering."

Some fans pull no punches about what they think is hurting attendance.

"This whole issue is about location," said Rays fan Mike Mano of Hillsborough. "Pinellas acts like this is their team. They built a stadium years ago with the 'Build it, they will come' attitude. They will, if they win. Moving the stadium across the bay to make it accessible to more baseball fans will ensure a good base to draw from for years."

"It is in a terrible location," added Robert Humburg of Hudson, who attended Tuesday's game. He said it was his last at Tropicana Field. "People who would like to go to a game once in a while, for them it is almost impossible."

Though three Hillsborough areas will be considered, the odds of a Hillsborough location becoming home for a new stadium are slim.

Of the membership of A Baseball Community, only one — Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes — is from Hillsborough County. The rest of the 11-member board comes from St. Petersburg and Pinellas. Some, like former County Commissioner Bob Stewart, helped lead the fight to bring baseball to St. Petersburg starting 30 years ago.

Moreover, the advisory group has no actual authority. It will only make a recommendation to the Pinellas County Commission and St. Petersburg City Council. Most members of those boards have expressed their will to keep baseball in Pinellas.

The committee's study won't even begin to address who would pay for the ballpark, or if the city of St. Petersburg would allow the Rays out of an agreement that keeps them in the city through 2027.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, for his part, has made it clear that the team will remain in St. Petersburg. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has shown no public interest in luring the Rays and has said she wants Tampa and Hillsborough County to support the team in St. Petersburg. She also couldn't be reached for comment late Thursday.

In a discussion with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, Lyash acknowledged Thursday that proximity to the maximum number of fans "has become more important" in weighing potential sites. The factor, he said, weighs against the two extremities being considered: downtown St. Petersburg and the fairgrounds.

However, Lyash said other factors also will be key to the group's recommendation, including the history of St. Petersburg's involvement with the team and its ongoing support.

"That is not insignificant," he said. "In the end ... it will be about more than just the location."

In addition to site options, the baseball panel also is preparing reports on the cost of financing a new stadium compared to a potential $470 million renovation of Tropicana Field, the economic impact of the team on the Tampa Bay area and trends in stadium design.

Lyash expects to solicit public input on all the options in the fall.

Lyash is leaving the bay area next month as he takes a corporate role at Progress Energy's Raleigh, N.C., headquarters. However, he plans to spend half his time in Florida and will continue to lead the baseball committee.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

Baseball committee considers three possible Hillsborough sites to replace Tropicana Field 06/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 12:19pm]
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