Saturday, May 26, 2018
News Roundup

Darryl LeClair's Rays stadium proposal is his latest effort to shape St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG — Darryl LeClair is determined to shape St. Petersburg.

He played a key role in persuading All Children's Hospital to construct a $400 million building in 2010.

Last year, the real estate developer spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on designs for a new Pier. His plans were rejected, but that didn't dampen his resolve to stay involved in mapping the city's future.

Now he's hoping to put his imprint on another St. Petersburg icon — the Tampa Bay Rays.

LeClair, 53, is pitching a new stadium for the Rays, a bid to keep the team from abandoning St. Petersburg as they search for more fans.

Friends of LeClair — some who knew what he was working on, some who claimed to be in the dark — said his decision to spend money on consultants and demographic studies for the possible stadium site is in keeping with this character.

Friends say LeClair has boundless energy, especially when it comes to discussing St. Petersburg's future. He has been known to wrap friends into two or three hour conversations about the city.

"Darryl can't help himself," said Scott Wagman, a former mayoral candidate who befriended LeClair two decades ago when their children attended the Canterbury School of Florida.

"People like Darryl really want the Rays in St. Petersburg because it's a St. Pete asset. I think he just loves St. Pete."

LeClair's proposal would place a new stadium on some 12 acres of vacant land in Carillon, just west of the Howard Frankland Bridge, in the Gateway area of St. Petersburg. Echelon, a residential and commercial development company that LeClair controls, owns the land.

Echelon began as a spin-off of Florida Progress Corp., where LeClair worked for more than 14 years before the company decided to jettison its real estate holdings. Today, Echelon is a major developer in Pinellas, particularly in Carillon, where it helped build a business park and condominiums.

Raymond James Financial moved in, as did Franklin Templeton and Allstate. Lee Arnold, the chief executive of Colliers International, who represents some tenants at Carillon, said LeClair envisioned it as a commercial center that "could exceed or equal the Westshore office market over time."

But in 2009, the economic downturn forced the company to reconsider its investments. At least one of its properties, a high-end 55-unit residential development called Back Bay at Carillon, was foreclosed upon.

By all appearances, LeClair's business did not fall to pieces during the recession, like so many others. To his friends and business acquaintances, this is a sign of his ingenuity. "Very smart people got killed in this recession and Darryl didn't get killed," Wagman said.

Far from it. LeClair, a University of Florida graduate who is married with two sons, lives in a 16,000- square-foot home on Snell Isle. Built in 2002, it is valued at more than $3 million.

LeClair did not respond to a reporter's request for comment for this story.

According to people close to LeClair, he is generous with his wealth. He sits on the board of All Children's Hospital and has donated to the Canterbury School as well as his church.

Fellow All Children's board member Craig Sher said it is largely because of LeClair that the hospital has a new building.

"We were going to remodel and rehab the old hospital and Darryl said, 'Wait a minute,' and very eloquently and off the cuff said, 'If we are going to go through with all this, why don't we build a new hospital?' " said Sher.

The board agreed. "He kind of guided us there," Sher said.

Wagman said that on several occasions, LeClair's desire to solve problems has left him with more responsibility than he expected. Years ago, LeClair offered to help Canterbury build its athletic fields on what turned out to be a swamp. He followed through, but wound up paying for engineering work and mountains of dirt that he didn't anticipate.

"He's one of those guys that on the outside you can say he's a rich developer that likes to make money in the development business, but he's lost a lot of money on things that he went into for altruistic reasons and cost him a lot more than he would have expected," Wagman said.

In 2011, before city officials could unveil their plans for a new Pier, LeClair debuted his own, a bold act that one City Council member likened to someone crashing a party. His plan was to create 5 acres of beach where there is now a sliver of sand. And though many who saw the presentation walked away impressed, it was eventually rejected by a five-member jury.

This time, LeClair has consulted with a handful of elected officials, including at least two Pinellas County commissioners who were briefed on the plan several months ago. And on Wednesday, LeClair's design team sent St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster a letter asking for a meeting at which to present his proposal. Rays officials said they have not seen the plan.

Sher, who has been friends with LeClair for 15 years, said he is the most "visionary" person in the county.

"He thinks about things 10 and 20 years ahead. And he is doing it with this stadium."

Said Foster: "He's a thinker. He is pretty passionate about the city where he lives."

Times staff writers Stephen Nohlgren and Mark Puente and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected]

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