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Despite stalled Rays stadium discussion, baseball talk heats up at St. Petersburg City Hall

ST. PETERSBURG — The topic of baseball stadiums is a touchy subject in the hometown of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Many still harbor resentment over the City Council's decision to use taxpayer money to build Tropicana Field in the 1980s without giving voters a say. That lingering resentment flared so dramatically in 2009 that the Rays walked away from plans for a new $450 million waterfront stadium.

Now, even with negotiations between the team and St. Petersburg at a standstill, the topic has once again reclaimed the City Hall spotlight.

This time, St. Petersburg business leaders are blasting a proposed city charter amendment that would require voter approval for public projects of more than $100 million — including professional sports facilities. They say it goes too far, partly because it unfairly targets the Rays.

"We don't want to send a message to any business, whether it's the Rays or any other business, that discourages them from making an investment," said Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's not helpful."

Steinocher and other chamber members lobbied members of the Charter Review Commission, a nine-member volunteer board that reviews the master plan for the city every 10 years and proposes changes. This year, it has until July 31 to approve proposed changes that will be placed on the Nov. 8 citywide ballot.

On Tuesday, the board voted 5-3 to reject the amendment requiring voter approval of city projects of more than $100 million. The vote came as a surprise to Hal Freedman, a founder of a political action committee that rallied against the waterfront stadium.

"I'm very upset about this," Freedman said. "It came out of left field. It happened so quickly, without a lot of debate."

Board member Darden Rice had supported the amendment — along with former City Council member Virginia Littrell and Rui Farias, a St. Petersburg High history teacher. Rice said she was disappointed by its rejection but hopes it will be revived at a July 11 public hearing at City Hall.

"I'm sure the chamber had an influence on the vote," said Rice. "This really is about giving the public an opportunity to have a vote on big-ticket items. It's a shame that some of our leaders in the business community regard such public input with such negativity."

Board member Bob Jeffrey, an architect, said the amendment went too far because it singled out specific projects.

He voted against it along with former council member Larry Williams, attorney Ian Gomez, attorney Thomas Ramsberger, and Tamaira Bailey-Heyward, an information specialist with Hewlett-Packard.

The amendment identified a sports facility, convention center, museum, theater and performing arts center as the types of projects that would require voter approval.

"Things outlined in the charter should be yes or no in nature, black or white," Jeffrey said. "It really shouldn't go into which uses are good or bad. … Either that list should be a heck of a lot longer to include all other types of uses, or there shouldn't be a list."

Like Steinocher, Jeffrey said protections already exist that limit what can be built along the city's waterfront and downtown.

"A large project would require funding, which would require a referendum," Jeffrey said. "So that protection is in place already."

Still, he said if enough people come to the July 11 hearing to complain, Jeffrey said he'd be open to revisiting it. Freedman said that might be necessary.

"The city could easily get money to build a stadium without going to referendum," Freedman said. "The waterfront is pretty well protected, but the rest of the city isn't. With this amendment in place, you couldn't do another Tropicana Field. That's still the project that has caused all this bitterness."

Yet the amendment would have had a chilling effect on efforts by the St. Petersburg and Tampa chambers to explore financing options for a stadium, as well as luring other types of private investment.

"We don't think it's a good message to send out right now that everything needs to be voted on," Steinocher said. "Developers need certainty right now. There's enough communities that are making it really easy to attract investment. We should be doing what we can to make it easy."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

What are the changes?

The Charter Review Commission, a nine-member volunteer board appointed by Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council, is considering a number of changes to the city charter, the blueprint for how city government works. Proposed changes are due by July 31 for the Nov. 8 ballot. The board will meet at least three more times, at a July 11 public hearing, and on July 12 and July 26, to consider a final list of changes. So far, they include:

• Voter approval for new development on the Pier approach, which includes the area now occupied by parking and the history museum.

• Voter approval for projects on downtown waterfront parks.

• Requirement that the city have a cohesive waterfront master plan.

• Requirement that the mayor submit a balanced budget to the City Council every year for approval.

• A change in how the city draws the lines for its eight council districts, which are now delineated by council members. Instead, it's proposed that council members appoint members, none of whom can be former council members, to draw the jurisdictional lines.

Despite stalled Rays stadium discussion, baseball talk heats up at St. Petersburg City Hall 06/29/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 30, 2011 8:44am]

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