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If there's a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, where should it be?

The Tampa Bay Rays want to pursue stadium sites throughout the region. "The future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay" depends on it, owner Stuart Sternberg said last week.

Choosing a site could well take a decade — not to mention figuring out who's going to pay the price. But Sternberg's pronouncement has set off a community buzz that could warm a real estate agent's heart:

It's all about location, location, location.

"We are at a crossroads where we can truly decide a vision for this community," said Chuck Sykes, chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Positioning the next baseball stadium could help define Tampa Bay for generations to come.

Though locations at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Dale Mabry Highway and Tropicana Field have their adherents, downtown Tampa and Pinellas County's Gateway area are odds-on favorites in most scenarios.

Tampa is the region's business and demographic center. The Rays want an urban environment and have ruled out downtown St. Petersburg.

The Gateway has strong support from north Pinellas County leaders. It lies mostly within St. Petersburg, which solves the city's staunch opposition to anything outside city limits.

Unlike Tampa sites, the Gateway has clear potential for public funding.

These scenarios could change if light rail arrives or if political winds shift. But for now, here's a closer look.

Downtown Tampa

Ever since Baltimore's Camden Yards opened in 1992, baseball teams have favored urban settings. Downtowns have parking garages, mass transit hubs and interstate off-ramps. Restaurants and surrounding amenities add excitement.

The ABC Coalition, a group of community leaders who studied stadium possibilities, recommended downtown Tampa, Gateway and West Tampa as the areas closest to where people live and work. Of those three, only downtown Tampa offers a true urban setting.

"A fundamental principle for a great community is having venues that bring people together into one place," Sykes said.

Still, all potential sites need a thorough vetting, he said. "There are challenges downtown we have to look at. People do complain about Lightning games and getting out of here."

In February, the St. Petersburg Times reported that someone was buying options on land in the Channel District in Tampa. Hillsborough County developer Claire Clements was circulating a rendering of how a Rays stadium might look on that land.

Clements declined to provide details other than to say it was just a concept.

One possible sticking point is a ConAgra flour mill that has occupied the north end of that property for decades.

"The city wanted to buy out ConAgra years ago and ConAgra wanted a lot of money," said Tampa developer Ken Stoltenberg. "They may have to call the stadium ConAgra Field."

Just to the north, off Nebraska Avenue, is land occupied by the Tampa Park Apartments. It is part of a low-income, largely African-American neighborhood between downtown office towers and Ybor City. Just a few blocks away is a proposed high-speed rail terminus that could bring fans from Orlando and Lakeland as early as 2015.

Developers have targeted the land several times, but the complex's not-for-profit owners have resisted, worried that gentrification could leave residents and small local businesses with no place to go.

At one point, a group trying to lure the summer Olympics to Tampa slotted this and neighboring land for an Olympic Stadium — with 2,000 affordable housing units as part of the package.

"It could have been the cement that brought a seamless connection between Ybor and downtown," former Hillsborough County Commission chairman Ed Turanchik said recently. "It had great transportation access to I-4, I-75 and the Selmon (Crosstown Expressway). We thought it was a win-win and the same could apply to a stadium. But the housing was important. We weren't going to put people out on the streets."

A few blocks west, 50 vacant acres are slated to become a mixed-use development along the Hillsborough River called the Heights of Tampa. The project stalled with the economy.

About a year ago, investors asked about land for a stadium, said development manager Darren Booth. He told them he wasn't interested, declining to name the investors.

"I can't see it working," Booth said. "Think about what happens with Tropicana Field. It's a big box that's used a few days a year. When it's empty, it's empty and you have all that dead space. Why would you want that on super-vibrant waterfront space?"

Another waterfront option could be east of Ybor Channel, across from the cruise port and Florida Aquarium. A pedestrian bridge at the north end could connect it with downtown.

The land now has more than 100 acres of oil tanks, dry docks and other heavy-industry businesses.

Environmental problems could be severe and traffic access would be tough, even with a connector planned from Interstate 4 to the Crosstown Expressway.

Still, "a couple of people have bought up land aggressively" there over the last decade, Stoltenberg said. "People have thought that at some point there has got to be spillover from downtown and the Channelside district into that area to make it more urban industrial."

Pinellas Gateway

The Carillon office and residential complex is just across the Howard Frankland Bridge from Tampa. A stadium would be a tight squeeze, but possible, said Mike Meidel, Pinellas County's economic development director. It probably would be accompanied by densely packed parking garages and vertical retail space.

Extensive road work would be required, he said, because Ulmerton Road on the north is already overloaded and internal Carillon roads "were designed to slow you down, not get you in quickly."

Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni, who lives in nearby Feather Sound, agreed.

"Can you imagine traffic on the bridge?" Morroni said. "Until I can get out of (Feather Sound) like a normal person, or get in here during peak times, I'm not going to support it."

With 240 acres, the county's old landfill at Toytown has plenty of room for parking and traffic, though it would probably require a new Interstate 275 interchange, Meidel said, and that would cost more than $50 million. A developer has secured a deal to build retail and office space and has until 2013 to close on the property. Plans include land for a stadium.

The big questions are environmental: Can pilings drive through years of garbage and into enough soil to support a shopping mall and a stadium — but not so deep that crud will leak into the aquifer?

Other less-mentioned Gateway possibilities include Derby Lane, Jabil's proposed future headquarters and Grady Pridgen's proposed La Entrada development. All have significant traffic access problems, Meidel said.

Both Toytown and Carillon are slated as possible light rail stops, said Dave Healey, executive director of the Pinellas Planning Council. Light rail would ease the traffic burden, new stadium or not.

"That's a whole new dynamic."

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

If there's a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, where should it be? 06/27/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 28, 2010 6:54am]
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