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No easy wins for stadium panel

ST. PETERSBURG — So far, Jeff Lyash's only decision as head of a coalition seeking a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays is that the group should have nine members.

That launched an immediate round of criticism from those who thought the coalition should be bigger, more inclusive. Imagine the reaction later this year when the group actually talks about the stadium.

The coalition may well yield a more direct and simpler path to a new ballpark than the route taken by the Rays, who desperately wanted a waterfront stadium at Al Lang Field by 2012.

But political observers, civic activists and local elected leaders also caution that the group, either by its organization or actions, could further taint or derail a stadium search already replete with problems. Personal interests could take precedence over the common good. Talks could turn secretive and deals could be cut behind closed doors.

Which path the group takes is very much in the hands of Lyash, the plain-spoken Progress Energy executive selected by Mayor Rick Baker to lead the stadium discussion in place of the baseball club.

Lyash said he understands the armchair quarterbacking he already faces.

"I'm getting input at the checkout line at the grocery store, I'm getting input at the gas pump when I'm filling up my vehicle. I need input," Lyash said. "I'm using that in consideration of how to proceed."

Why nine?

Lyash, who announced Monday the coalition will be called A Baseball Community Inc., believes that a nine-member board straddles the line between having enough members to represent the community and not having so many that it can't remain effective.

He used the baseball team to help make his point.

"The Rays have got a heck of a winning record and they put nine players on the field, and I think with nine board members we ought to be able to do a good job on behalf of that organization and the community," he said.

But with a wide variety of interests to accommodate, creating a board that will be widely recognized as impartial and balanced will be challenging.

A bigger group would have at least made the selection a little easier, said City Council member Herb Polson.

"I'm somewhat surprised by the size," Polson said. "I didn't know what the magic number was, but I thought it would be larger than (nine)."

Lyash has not detailed how he would fill the board, though it's largely assumed that he will seek a geographic balance among members. Balancing viewpoints will be more difficult, said former City Council member and 2009 mayoral candidate Bill Foster.

"People will be wearing numerous hats," Foster said. "You might have someone with a construction and tourism background. The only way to make this happen is that there will have to be utility players."

Other people and viewpoints will be involved, Lyash said. Subcommittees or working groups likely will pool dozens of other people into the coalition's work.

Will Michaels, vice president of St. Petersburg's Council of Neighborhood Associations and president of St. Pete Preservation — two groups that opposed the Rays waterfront stadium proposal — said the subcommittee structure will create the opportunity for more voices to be heard.

"A lot of other people will be involved in the coalition," Michaels said.

Who is in charge?

After the coalition is seated next month, the group faces an even more critical question: Can they persuade the public to accept their recommendation?

Progress Energy, Lyash's company, is one of the Rays' largest corporate sponsors. And Lyash already has said that board members must be open to the idea that the Rays will need a new stadium.

Moreover, since the group will neither be led by a government body nor have government oversight, it will not be subject to open records laws.

Lyash said he intends to make meetings of the group and documents public.

"Everything has to be open to the public," said Darryl Paulson, a political science professor at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. "The problem before was the Rays in essence knew what they wanted to do and where they wanted to do it, and sort of sprung it on both the city and the county without their input."

The Rays say they will not be formally involved in the coalition's work but will provide guidance and assistance when asked. The city and county expect to play a similar role.

"This coalition means nothing to me. I will minimize it and marginalize it every chance I get," said St. Petersburg community activist Lorraine Margeson. "No one voted to assign a committee led by the second biggest corporate sponsor of the Rays."

Lyash said he hopes to have the coalition seated by Labor Day and that its work will take 12 to 18 months to complete. The group will make recommendations to the city and county on a possible stadium location and a way to pay for it.

But the city and county will retain the final decision, since public tax dollars likely will be involved.

"This is not supplanting the role of government," said CONA's Michaels. "The city and the mayor and the county need to be involved. This is hopefully an assist to the city and county, not replacing the city and county."

>>fast facts

Six people Jeff Lyash might consider

Russ Kimball, general manager of Sheraton Sand Key

• Longtime member of Tourist Development Council. Well-known in Clearwater, Pinellas' second largest city.

Steve Raymund, former Tech Data CEO

• Led St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce's baseball task force.

Barbara Heck, CONA president

• Heads St. Petersburg's largest neighborhood organization. Could be someone else from CONA.

Bob Stewart, Pinellas County commissioner

• Leaving office in January, former City Council member who supported efforts to build Tropicana Field.

Dick Vitale, ESPN commentator

• Rays season ticket holder since Day 1. Sports junkie. Would he have the time to serve?

Frank Morsani, Tampa businessman and philanthropist

• Lost out on original competition to own the Rays.

No easy wins for stadium panel 07/26/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 28, 2008 5:56pm]
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