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Baseball committee recommends a more central location for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays need a new, centrally located baseball stadium and planning should begin soon, a group of business and community leaders declared Monday.

The 11-member ABC Coalition, which has studied the stadium issue for 18 months, approved its final report Monday, which it hopes to present to St. Petersburg and Pinellas County officials over the next few weeks.

The report has no legal standing and acknowledges that a sour economy and scarce tax revenues preclude construction anytime soon.

But without a new stadium, the group said, losing the Rays at some point is a "real possibility'' that would cause "irreparable damage to the economic, social and cultural well-being of the region.''

The report "is another step in an evolving process,'' said Rays executive Michael Kalt. "We welcome the reaction of public officials and the community going forward.''

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who had not yet read the report, emphasized that the Rays have a contractual obligation to play their games at Tropicana Field through the 2026 season.

"But reading the tea leaves, we don't believe (the Rays) will make it through that season without some discussion of stadium suitability,'' Foster said.

The next step is up to the Rays, he said. The city will not initiate any action based on the coalition's recommendations.

"But we are going to have to address the needs of a partner and economic driver for our city,'' Foster said.

The coalition was formed in 2008 after an unpopular push by the Rays for a stadium on the downtown waterfront. Then-Mayor Rick Baker asked Progress Energy executive Jeff Lyash to form a community coalition to study how to make baseball financially successful in St. Petersburg over the long haul.

Other than voting to present their report to Pinellas politicians, the coalition reached no consensus on what role, if any, they might play in future stadium efforts.

Foster said he hoped the coalition would stay engaged in the stadium debate in some capacity.

"That's a very talented group. They have a plethora of knowledge on this issue,'' Foster said. "I think we are going to eventually need them.''

But Foster also said he needs to consult the city's legal department about how to receive and discuss the ABC coalition's report — to make sure it doesn't undermine St. Petersburg's legal position if the city and Rays should ever end up in litigation over the stadium lease.

All the coalition's key conclusions have been previously publicized, as subcommittees reported back on specific issues like design, location and financing.

The highlights include:

• To stay consistently competitive, the Rays need the higher revenues that a modern, retractable roof stadium with lots of amenities can generate.

• Under today's conditions, such a stadium would probably cost at least $550 million.

• The Trop — with closed-in concourses, bad sight lines and spartan luxury boxes — is "nearing the end of its economically useful life.'' Renovation would be too costly.

• To draw more fan and corporate support, a new stadium should be closer to the Tampa Bay area's demographic and business centers. The Pinellas Gateway, downtown Tampa and west Tampa meet that criteria, but downtown St. Petersburg does not.

• The current financing arrangement on the Trop, which includes about $6 million a year in St. Petersburg tax money, and a similar chunk of Pinellas County's bed tax, runs through 2015. That would have to be extended for another 30 years, with the Rays paying 20 to 30 percent of construction costs. Even then, the project would need additional financing.

During their aborted 2008 push for the waterfront stadium, the Rays never specifically threatened to move but warned rather pointedly that they cannot continue to play at Tropicana Field through the end of the lease.

Since then, they have generally declined comment on stadium issues, saying they wanted to let the ABC Coalition make its recommendations first.

On Monday, Kalt said the team is "committed'' to the Tampa Bay area. And Lyash commended the Rays as "supportive of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and Tampa Bay.''

Nevertheless, after months of discussions with the Rays, the coalition repeatedly suggested in its report that the team would, indeed, leave town without a new stadium.

Baseball brings the community together, attracts businesses and "in some indefinable way … attests to the major league status of our area,'' the coalition reported.

"The region now faces the risk of losing its baseball team at some point in the future.''

Despite the economy, public officials and community leaders should soon begin to plan for the best location, stadium design and financing, Lyash said.

"Now is the best time to actively build consensus and put a plan in place,'' he said. "So when conditions are supportive of raising revenue, we are ready to move.''

Whys and hows of a new stadium

Here are key conclusions reached by the ABC Coalition about a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. Sections marked "Logic'' summarize the group's latest report, plus statements by coalition members. Sections marked "On the other hand'' summarize sentiments of stadium opponents expressed over the last two years.

Logic On the other hand
The Trop is nearing "end of useful economic life'' Rays revenues and payroll are among lowest in league, making it hard to keep favorite players, compete for free agents and stay consistently competitive. Spiffy new stadiums generate loads of revenue, with bigger crowds, higher ticket prices and more luxurious accommodations. Many fans like the Trop. Attendance is growing with team success. Small payroll teams sometimes win pennants.
New stadium needs retractable roof Domes are dinosaurs. The Trop is the last remaining dome in the majors. Fans want open stadiums and natural grass. Keeping the stadium open year-round reduces A/C cost. Not much argument. If a new stadium is built, a retractable roof is probably better than a completely open-air stadium or new dome.
Renovating the Trop won't cut it It's like rebuilding the engine and transmission on a 12-year-old car driven 200,000 miles. Removing the Trop's roof, opening up concourses, moving press box, overhauling luxury suites and other changes would cost $200 million to $475 million, compared to $550 million to $600 million for a new stadium. Even with renovation, the aging Trop would suffer from flaws and maintenance problems. Construction period would force Rays into temporary stadium at considerable cost. Partial measures would cost less than new stadium.
Stadium should be closer to Tampa Bay center Putting the stadium in Gateway, West Tampa or downtown Tampa would get it closer to where most fans live and work, especially important for midweek games. Any site outside St. Petersburg faces problems because of current use agreement with city. The Trop is only a 10-minute drive from Gateway with good in-out access. Over time and success on field, Tampa and North Pinellas residents will warm to it.
New stadium will boost corporate support In other cities, businesses buy two-thirds of season tickets, compared to one-third here. A modern stadium, located closer to business centers in Pinellas and Hillsborough, will woo the business community. Luxury suites, rented mostly by businesses, are woeful in Trop. Corporate support might improve as team wins more.
New sources of financing are needed Finance packages at other modern stadiums suggest that the Rays might put up $110 million to $180 million. Extending the current city, county and state payments on the Trop would add another big financing chunk. But the price of the stadium would require other dedicated revenue streams, like ticket surcharges, a slice of concessions or additional tourist tax. Surcharges drive up fans' costs. Let Rays pay more up front.
Rays are an economic driver and enhance quality of life Studies show the Rays add at least $200 million a year to the local economy. The Rays are part of area's "cultural fabric" and an important attraction for businesses debating whether to locate here. If the Rays don't eventually get a new stadium, they will leave. Economic impact studies are often overblown.
Be ready to act when the economy improves It's not a question of "if" the Rays need a new stadium, but "when" and "how." Bringing big community projects to fruition takes years. Nobody is pushing for immediate action given the economy, but "planning and decisionmaking" should begin "as soon as the opportunity emerges." Seventeen years remain on the Trop agreement. Even if the Rays get a new stadium, it could come later in the lease rather than sooner. New stadium talk at this point is premature.

Baseball committee recommends a more central location for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium 01/25/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 6:59am]
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