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Private business group touting plan for new Tampa Bay Rays stadium

ST. PETERSBURG — In an effort to slice through stalled stadium negotiations between the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Petersburg, a prominent real estate developer has come forward with a plan of his own.

After months of secrecy, Darryl LeClair sent a letter Wednesday to St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster asking for an audience to pitch a new baseball stadium in the Carillon business park, just west of the Howard Frankland Bridge, in the Gateway area of St. Petersburg. His company, Echelon, controls roughly 12 acres of vacant land there, where a stadium could fit but not much else.

"As a private, St. Petersburg company, we care deeply about the city and are troubled by the ongoing dispute and widening deadlock between the city and the Rays," wrote Chris Eastman, president of LeClair's development team, CityScape.

The letter indicated that LeClair's team has met with experts in stadium design, demographics and traffic analysis, but until Wednesday he kept his plans close to the vest.

LeClair sent the letter to Foster about an hour after two Times reporters visited his office to ask about the plan.

LeClair did brief at least two Pinellas County commissioners, Ken Welch and Karen Seel, in recent months. They both said Wednesday that they first learned of LeClair's stadium plan this past spring.

Welch said he spent several hours reviewing the designs and analysis and came away an enthusiastic fan. "They really put a lot of time and effort and analysis into the demographics and drive times," Welch said. "When they present it, everyone will see how detailed this plan is."

LeClair maintained his silence Wednesday and did not respond to phone calls or emails.

The revelation comes a day after the Pinellas County Commission voted to request a meeting with the Rays and St. Petersburg officials to discuss the team's future. The week before, the Hillsborough County Commission decided to extend its own invitation to the team.

This is not the first time LeClair has launched into an unsolicited effort to solve a public problem. Last year, he unveiled a plan for a new $50 million Pier for St. Petersburg that was rejected.

The stadium site LeClair is pitching sits just south of a Publix supermarket. According to Welch, one rendering showed a view from home plate to the east, out past second base to a glass wall that afforded views of Tampa Bay and high-rise buildings in Tampa's Westshore area.

The designs showed an enclosed stadium that can be air conditioned, with options for both a solid roof and a retractable one, Welch said.

The project would be part of a broader mixed-use development, including one wall that might lead to a hotel or retail or other commercial space.

For several years, the Rays have said that Tropicana Field is outdated and too far from Tampa Bay's core to draw enough fans and make enough money to consistently field competitive teams.

The team's contract to play at the Trop extends until 2027, and Foster has refused to allow the Rays to negotiate a new stadium deal anywhere outside or adjacent to city limits per the team's contract with the city.

The Rays have not talked to LeClair or any of his colleagues about a stadium in Carillon, said Michael Kalt, a Rays vice president.

Kalt reiterated Wednesday the team's position that it will not engage in stadium discussions restricted to Pinellas County.

"Over the years, we've heard and read about many developers who would like to include a baseball stadium in their plans," Kalt said. "Our position remains the same — we will consider any potential ballpark site in Tampa Bay, but only as part of a process that considers every ballpark site in Tampa Bay."

Foster, who said he has not seen the specifics, said he was impressed that a local business leader would formulate his own plan. He said he would urge the City Council to make time for the presentation.

"This is the first time since the construction of Tropicana Field that a private citizen is willing at his expense to come up with a concept," he said. "I'd like to see it."

Told of LeClair's plan Wednesday, City Council Chair Leslie Curran accused Foster and some city staff members of trying to keep it a secret

"It concerns me that they didn't share it with everyone," she said, adding that she believes it is the same "secret plan" that has been whispered about for a year.

Welch could not provide details about how a new stadium could be financed — a significant economic and political challenge.

Tropicana Field cost roughly $150 million, financed primarily by a county bed tax on hotels and city of St. Petersburg taxes. State sales taxes collected within the stadium paid a small amount.

According to most estimates, a modern, roofed baseball stadium would cost $500 million to $600 million. The Rays have indicated they might contribute $150 million, but that still leaves a roughly $400 million tab.

The city and county still owe roughly $40 million on the Trop, which will be paid off in 2015. Welch said he presumes that county bed taxes now pledged to the Trop could help support a new stadium, but at today's bond rates that would support roughly $90 million toward construction.

The city could provide a like amount by shifting its Trop commitment to a new stadium after 2015 and also could contribute money from the sale of the Trop's 84 acres.

But that's far from given.

Economic and political climates have changed dramatically since the Trop was built. Polls by the Tampa Bay Times' have shown little taxpayer support for financing stadiums.

Welch said he presumed that private investors would have to front much of the costs.

"Governments are struggling, and from a political aspect you would have to deal with that," Welch said. "But at least this is a plan and we can talk."

Welch and other county commissioners have long favored a Gateway site because it would be closer to north Pinellas and Hillsborough. The Rays and others who have studied stadium locations have wondered whether the Gateway would actually make much difference to Hillsborough residents. The worry is that crossing Tampa Bay at rush hour is a psychological barrier that no Pinellas location can surmount.

Welch suggested that the Carillon renderings could soothe those fears.

"You can basically see this stadium from Westshore," Welch said. "I don't want to say, 'Build it and they will come.' But let's see what folks say when they see this design. I think it can change minds."

Private business group touting plan for new Tampa Bay Rays stadium 08/08/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 9, 2012 12:21am]
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