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Poll: Keep Rays stadium in Pinellas, or at the State Fairgrounds

Residents on both sides of Tampa Bay want to keep the Rays playing baseball somewhere in Pinellas County. But if the team did move to a new stadium in Hillsborough County, the favored location is near the State Fairgrounds.

That's what a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll showed this month.

About 55 percent of Tampa Bay area residents overall prefer Major League Baseball to remain at Tropicana Field or at a mid-Pinellas location in the Gateway area.

Part of that sentiment stems from fans like Gulfport resident Christina Ramires, a disabled widow who likes the short drive to the Trop. "We always go two or three times a year when they offer discount tickets to school kids,'' she said.

But support for the Trop also stems from Hillsborough residents like Michael Fall of Apollo Beach, who thinks "the Rays should stay put. I don't think they deserve a new stadium."

About 30 percent of respondents favor a Hillsborough site.

The 508 people polled were divided evenly between Hillsborough and Pinellas residents. The poll's overall margin of error was 4.3 percentage points, and as high as 6.2 for answers from just one county.

Answers tended to reflect where people lived.

Among Pinellas residents, 80 percent want the Rays to stay west of the bay, with 57 percent favoring the Trop site and 23 percent favoring Gateway.

Only 8 percent of Pinellas residents support a Hillsborough location.

That hometown preference was weaker in Hillsborough. About 49 percent of people would prefer a new stadium in their county. But 33 percent want to keep baseball in Pinellas, where other people's taxes pay for the stadium.

"Sports has gotten to be big bucks,'' said Fall, 50, an unemployed pipeline worker. "It's pathetic when a working man goes out and busts his butt day after day and struggles to get by and athletes are paid millions.''

Still, Hillsborough residents seem to be warming to the idea of landing the Rays. A 2010 poll showed that only 37 percent wanted the team to move to Hillsborough, compared with 49 percent this year.

What stands out is where Hills­borough residents would like a stadium to be built.

About 27 percent favor the fairgrounds at Interstate 4 and U.S. Highway 301, compared with 17 percent who like downtown and 5 percent who prefer the West Shore area.

Two years ago, a civic group called the ABC Coalition recommended West Shore or downtown Tampa as the best Hillsborough locations, citing population projections through 2035 and a denser corporate presence in those two areas.

The Rays, too, have indicated a strong preference for urban over suburban settings.

Yet for now, Hillsborough fans take a different view.

Lutz resident Linda Baggio, a former New Englander, likes baseball at the Trop, particularly when the Boston Red Sox visit for the weekend.

But it's a 50-minute drive, and Baggio figures the fairgrounds is only 15 or 20 minutes away. That would allow her family to attend more weekday games and root for their second favorite team, the Rays, she said.

To get to the fairgrounds, the Baggios would sometimes head south on Interstate 275, then east on I-4, she said, describing a route that skirts downtown.

But Baggio figures a stadium in the Channelside district or somewhere else downtown would add another 10 to 15 minutes to the drive.

"When you come into downtown, it always backs up in there,'' Baggio said. "It doesn't seem to matter what time of day.''

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco has pushed for a fairgrounds location if the Rays can get permission from the city of St. Petersburg to look elsewhere.

"It's a wonderful piece of property,'' he said. "The Hard Rock Casino next door draws nearly 7-million people a year. It's in the center of about everything. You can go north and Pasco (residents) can drive right into it. So does Manatee to the south and Lakeland to the east.''

Several Pinellas residents blanched at the notion of driving through Tampa's rush hour. Only 3 percent of those polled favored a fairgrounds location.

Elaine Melkioty, 32, of Palm Harbor, drives to Tampa Bay Lightning games in downtown Tampa and would eagerly do the same for the Rays. From her house, it's a quicker drive than to the Trop, she said.

But the fairgrounds?

"It takes forever," Melkioty said. "And it's kind of a rundown area, too. Downtown is nice.''

Kenneth Saunders, 45, agrees, and he lives in Riverview, just a few minutes from the fairgrounds.

Saunders works on airplane maintenance at MacDill Air Force Base and loves the idea of downtown baseball because he could eat, drink and party at Channelside before or after the game.

"If they would put it close to the St. Pete Times Forum, I would buy season tickets,'' Saunders said. "I would go to the fairgrounds more than I do now (to the Trop), but there's nothing to do at the fairgrounds.''

As they did in 2010, a plurality of respondents opposed the use of public money for stadium construction, even if it did not raise their own taxes.

The Times and Bay News 9 also polled residents about how the two major cities' mayors have handled the Rays.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has firmly refused to let the Rays hold stadium discussions with anyone out of St. Petersburg. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has signaled he is eager to work out a downtown Tampa deal.

A separate poll of St. Petersburg residents showed that 48 percent are either "very satisfied'' or "somewhat satisfied'' with Foster's handling of the Rays, while 39 percent are "not too satisfied'' and 12 percent not sure.

In a Tampa-area poll, 53 percent of residents are "very satisfied'' or "somewhat satisfied'' with Buckhorn's handling of the Rays, while 22 percent are "not too satisfied'' and 23 percent not sure.

Poll: Keep Rays stadium in Pinellas, or at the State Fairgrounds 12/24/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 24, 2011 5:00am]
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