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Foster vies to make St. Petersburg a boom town for sports

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster has started acting on his campaign promise to try to transform St. Petersburg into a hub for international athletics and premier sporting events that he hopes will be an economic catalyst.

It's an expansive wish list that includes returning Major League Baseball spring training to Al Lang Field, hosting the World Baseball Championship in 2013, and becoming a site for international baseball teams to play.

Foster said he will aggressively pursue other sporting events, including the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, University of South Florida football games, high school football state championships, yacht racing, tennis championships, golf tournaments, boxing events and swimming meets.

"We're hearing all about having to make some big budget cuts and high unemployment," Foster said. "What I'm trying to do with this is create a revenue generator that will bring in jobs and money from outside the area."

To help him market the city, Foster is forming the "Mayor's Sports Council." Its members will be athletes and business professionals who will raise money to recruit events. Foster said among those who have already agreed to sit on the board are boxer Winky Wright, baseball sluggers Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield, retired Bucs Shaun King and Mike Alstott, golfer Brittany Lincicome, America's Cup skipper Ed Baird, and Indy auto racer Dan Wheldon.

Foster calls the plan one of his chief priorities as mayor. The man he's entrusted with the effort, Jim Neader, a former sports agent, managed his mayoral campaign.

Neader, 59, will work with the city's staff to try to recruit international teams to play exhibitions, tournaments or even play minor league baseball in Florida.

He started in February and has gotten representatives from the Canadian and Holland national baseball teams to visit, Foster said. He's also contacted teams in Japan. Foster's big hope is that an international team playing in St. Petersburg could join the Grapefruit League, the Major League Baseball teams that come to Florida for spring training.

Such a team would play at Al Lang Field and train at the Raymond A. Naimoli Complex. The Tampa Bay Rays used those facilities from 1999 to 2009 until they left to train in Charlotte County.

"The city knew two to three years ago that Lang and Naimoli would go dark and did nothing until I came aboard," Foster said. "We need to get better use out of them."

A recent economic impact study showed spring training baseball generated $752.3 million for the state in 2009. If it returned to St. Petersburg, even with a foreign team taking the field, it would help the local economy, Foster said.

He said Rays executives he has talked to were supportive.

"Whatever we do, it's not in competition with the Rays," Foster said. "Their success is my No. 1 priority."

Michael Kalt, the Rays' senior vice president of development and business affairs, said the club had no objections to more professional baseball, even if it's played in the summer.

"Whatever we can do to help, we will certainly offer a hand," Kalt said. "Al Lang is a wonderful resource, and we understand why the city wants to get more use out of it."

Kalt said Foster's approach is nothing new for cities that have lost a spring training team. For instance, when Charlotte County lost the Texas Rangers a few years ago, it recruited college teams and Korean national teams to play there, Kalt said.

Foster said he doesn't know what his sports initiative will cost. He had the city apply for a $200,000 state tourism development grant that would help pay for an assortment of costs associated with international baseball, such as making improvements to the facilities and travel expenses.

While many city officials have heard that Foster was planning a major push for sporting events, few have been told the details.

"The mayor hasn't shared his vision with me," said Council member Herb Polson. "I would expect he will, sooner rather than later, share with us what he plans. It sounds like the idea is heads and beds. It sounds like we have county officials who already do that, so I'd want to make sure we're not overlapping with any of this."

Much of what Foster plans is already done by the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Sports Commission. It also promotes St. Petersburg, as well as the rest of Pinellas County, as a sports destination. Its director, Kevin Smith, said Neader met with him and told him the city's plans.

"It will enhance what we're doing," Smith said. "We won't duplicate efforts."

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

Foster vies to make St. Petersburg a boom town for sports 04/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 2, 2010 9:19pm]
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