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How to mess up the next time, too

First things first: Go Rays! I was at the game last night and almost took up a Red Sox fan's invitation to fight, but I figured Major League Baseball would probably throw me out and give him a better seat.

But booing the Boston Red Sox is not today's topic. The topic is the Rays' now-dead proposal for a waterfront baseball stadium, and what we ought to learn from it.

The real failure of the stadium idea, after all, was a failure to win public opinion. If the public had overwhelmingly loved the idea, we'd be voting on it in November. All the problems would have worked out magically.

Instead, there were two key mistakes that poisoned the deal and made it a political no-go.

The first, and the most damaging, was the initial secrecy. The Rays and the city of St. Petersburg exploited a loophole in state law to sign a secret agreement in April 2007. The loophole allows secrecy for matters concerning "economic development."

But even if such a loophole were justified, using it for seven months to keep the taxpayers in the dark about the single biggest, most important decision facing the community in decades was unconscionable.

And it's not like the city simply signed the deal and kept quiet — it went out of its way to deceive the public and try to talk voters out of their silly idea of preserving the waterfront site as a park.

The city even thought it necessary to keep the secret during elections for a new City Council — the same council that would be making the stadium decision. No sense worrying the voters' pretty little heads with an actual issue!

So when the deal finally did become public in November, right after the election, it already was crippled politically.

The second key failure was the appearance of a bait and switch on the financing.

The stadium deal went public in November as a set of pretty pictures and little more. The Rays glibly asserted that the development of the old Tropicana Field site would pay for the new stadium. As for the pesky financial details, those would come later.

Only months later did the hard facts emerge — both the city and the county taxpayers were expected to stay on the hook for another 30 years or so of debt. And no, there could be no guarantees that the Tropicana redevelopment would pay for it.

So now the deal is dead, wisely killed by the Rays themselves. We will start a new stadium process, with more involvement and leadership from the area's business community. Good.

I hope they think twice about the secret-deal angle. If they want to keep secrets, keep 'em as short-term and limited in scope as possible. Do not engage in active deception of citizens. Consider the political cost on the back end.

And it might be a good idea, when they do come up with a new plan, to treat the public like grown-ups and say up front what it's really going to cost. Get the sticker shock out of the way on the front end; we'll all sputter and yell — and then we will see whether enough of us calm down enough to get used to the idea.

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How to mess up the next time, too 06/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 8:46pm]
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