ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County residents care about keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in the region more than their Hillsborough County counterparts.
And if the Rays build a new stadium, a third of Pinellas residents favor the current downtown St. Petersburg location. By contrast, only 17 percent of those in Hillsborough chose downtown Tampa for a new stadium.
Those are the highlights of a Tampa Bay Times/ 10News WTSP poll conducted earlier this month which asked 650 registered voters how much they cared about keeping the team in the region and where they wanted a new local stadium.
The telephone poll conducted Dec. 3-10 has a 4 percent margin of error.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he wasn't surprised that Hillsborough residents like a Florida State Fairgrounds location.
"The immediate reaction is, that's a vote for ease of access," Buckhorn said. "You have lots of surface parking, access to Interstate 4."
Buckhorn prefers a downtown stadium in Tampa, which was picked by only 13 percent of respondents in Hillsborough and Pinellas. The fairgrounds, downtown St. Petersburg, and the Gateway area in northern St. Petersburg all ranked higher.
"You can't just look at this as just a building," Buckhorn said of a new stadium. Locating a stadium downtown that is pedestrian-friendly and near to restaurants, shops and bars will spur development, he said.
That wouldn't happen in a more suburban setting like the fairgrounds. Just look at Raymond James Stadium, he said.
"That's a perfect example," Buckhorn said. "You have Chili's and Mons Venus and that's about it."
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has said that he thinks the best future home for the team is on its current site, Tropicana Field. He cites easy interstate access and a booming downtown whose renaissance is spreading west along Central Avenue. His opinion is shared by 36 percent of Pinellas residents and 16 percent in Hillsborough.
"When you look at the opportunities to be there, it makes perfect sense," Kriseman said.
The Rays declined to comment on the poll results.
Pinellas residents also showed a much stronger desire to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay: 48 percent of them said they "care a lot of about keeping the team here" compared to 32 percent of Hillsborough residents.
"The team has always had the support of the business community in Pinellas more than Hillsborough," Kriseman said.
Buckhorn said the Hillsborough numbers would likely change if any real threat of relocation emerged. And, if the St. Petersburg City Council agrees to allow the Rays to look in Hillsborough for stadium sites, the 31 percent of the county's residents that say they don't care at all if the Rays leave will plummet, he predicted.
"Given the opportunity to compete, there is a real love of baseball in this town that doesn't exist in a lot of places," Buckhorn said.
Consider Littleton Long, 80, a Tampa resident, who has followed the sport passionately for most of century. He said Tampa has a storied baseball history, rattling off luminaries such Tony LaRussa, Tino Martinez and Lou Pinella.
"We have a decent team here and we should do something to keep them here," Long said.
He said the fairgrounds is the best place for a new stadium because it would attract fans from Orlando and Pasco County, who might be wary of driving all the way to St. Petersburg.
Joshua Black, a St. Petersburg resident, prefers the Gateway area. Developer Darryl LeClair proposed a stadium in Carillon in 2012, and Black said the team should revisit that idea. The Gateway provides easy access from Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, he said.
But Black, who mostly listens to Rays games on the radio these days as he has young children, said the Rays should build where they want — and pay for it without using taxpayer dollars.
"It should be the Rays' decision where to build because it should be the Rays' money spent to build it," Black said.
Robert Parham also lives in St. Petersburg. He also brought up taxpayer dollars when where he thought a new stadium should be built. He would prefer a stadium on the waterfront — much like a proposal floated by the Rays in 2007 — or some other location downtown.
"Just so long as they don't go anywhere," said Parham, 66. "They displaced a lot of neighborhoods. Just to leave? The taxpayers paid for that stadium."
Long, Black and Parham all said they were Rays fans. But the poll showed slightly more passionate support for the team among women: 61 percent of women care a lot or some about keeping the Rays in the region compared to 58 percent of men.
Julia Barnard has some ideas about those numbers.
Women are more likely to support a team that may not enjoy their primary loyalty, she said.
Case in point: Barnard, 51, grew up a Tigers fan in Detroit but has lived in nine states and cheered for several different teams. Men, she says, are more likely to remain loyal to one team like her brother, a die-hard Tigers fan.
And women are more likely to care about keeping the Rays as baseball has a more family-friendly vibe, said the Tampa resident.
"Baseball has always been a family thing," Barnard said.
Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.