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Private developer pitching new Tampa Bay Rays stadium says he's ready to move on

ST. PETERSBURG — In artist renderings, the baseball stadium fronted Ulmerton Road, surrounded by gleaming Mediterranean Revival office buildings and apartments. Traffic studies touted favorable drive times across the Howard Frankland Bridge.

But two months after its unveiling, a proposed stadium at Carillon Business Park has lost whatever buzz it briefly sparked.

Disappointed city officials — who had hoped that Carillon might break a stadium stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays — are back to square one, wondering about baseball's long-term prospects in the region.

And Carillon's developers — without any means to jump start their stadium project — are preparing to move on.

"It has been an intense year,'' St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair said recently. "I am going to tell our team, 'Enjoy the holiday season. Relax. And next year we are going to start aggressively pursuing other options for the Carillon holdings.' ''

LeClair and his companies control about 17 acres in the mixed-use park, which houses several national or regional headquarters, residential units and a Hilton hotel.

Development possibilities include more offices, apartments, retail space and another hotel, LeClair said. All were included in the stadium proposal, jam-packed around the field, even sharing walls with the stadium.

"To the degree we can pursue opportunities that will preserve the stadium footprint, we will,'' LeClair said. But at some "crossover point'' a few years down the road, he said, further development with impinge on the footprint, "and we will be forced to make a decision that will lead to Carillon taking itself out of consideration'' as a stadium site.

The proposed ballpark, 10 to 15 minutes closer to Tampa than Tropicana Field, has always been an exercise in speculation.

It would require existing Carillon-based companies to share their parking lots. Most of those companies refused to discuss whether they would ever agree to that.

LeClair never revealed how the stadium might be financed, other than suggesting that ancillary development could help underwrite costs.

Most importantly, a Carillon stadium never had a chance unless St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster or Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg changed their strategic positions, which neither has.

Sternberg still refuses to negotiate on any Pinellas site unless he can explore options in Hillsborough as well. Foster still uses the Trop contract to forbid any cross-bay dalliances.

The Rays declined to comment for this story. Foster reiterated his stance.

"I will never allow them to lose the fact that they owe the people of Pinellas County 1,215 home games at Tropicana Field,'' Foster said. "I don't care how much Tampa would be able to put up to finance a stadium, it will be 2028 before the first pitch in Tampa.''

Charlie Gerdes is the only City Council member who favors letting the Rays look in Tampa — for a price. He thinks Pinellas has advantages that will shine through if the Rays can compare what each county has to offer.

Ultimately, Gerdes said, forbidding the Rays to explore stadium sites in Tampa will just drive them across the bay as the Trop contract nears its end in 2027.

"What we have done is totally prevented Mr. LeClair or anybody else from educating the Rays, selling, convincing or advocating why a site on this side of the bay is the perfect place,'' Gerdes said. "Mr. LeClair undertook, on his own, a pretty expensive proposition and it is just sitting there? Come on.''

Last year, council member Leslie Curran drafted a request for full-fledged council discussion of the Rays/Tampa issue. But then she withdrew the request, she said, after senior development administrator Rick Mussett told her that LeClair was quietly working up a Carillon proposal.

Now, with Carillon fading from the picture, Curran said she may ask council to reopen up the whither-baseball topic.

"We can't start the new year on the same footing we are on now,'' Curran said. "We are going to have to do something — more than just the Rays saying 'this or nothing' and from the city side, 'We are not looking at anything unless it is in the city limits.' "

The current stalemate prevents any exploration about improving the Tropicana Field acreage — with or without a new stadium, Curran said.

"There sits Tropicana Field with no discussion whatsoever that perhaps something can be done there,'' Curran said. "We need to have a frank discussion about that.''

Last month, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce sent Foster a letter, endorsing his position. The letter also urged the Rays to consider Carillon and other sites in St. Petersburg.

But "you can't force somebody to do something,'' chamber chair David Punzak said Friday. "That was only a suggestion. It isn't a lot different that if Home Shopping wanted to leave town. We as a chamber feel our obligation is to do anything we can to keep any money maker in town. Hopefully in the new year we can move forward somehow.''

Larry Richey tracks area office space as managing director of Cushman & Wakefield in Tampa. LeClair's companies certainly should be able to add new Carillon office space, Richey said.

But not right away.

Carillon's location and amenities are "as good as it gets,'' Richey said. "Not only in the Gateway but in the Tampa Bay area.'

But the recession hit the Gateway area hard, he said. Several large firms pulled out or downsized. Office vacancy rates still hover above 20 percent. Two empty buildings are large enough to house regional corporate headquarters.

Banks will not lend money for speculative development in such a market, Richey said.

"There are certainly enough vacancies to handle a year or two'' of demand, he said. "Unless another Franklin Templeton (Investments) came to town and wanted to be in Carillon and build 300,000 square feet, Darryl has some time.''

While talking boldly about building out Carillon, LeClair continued to make a pitch for a stadium.

He said he is still "naively hopeful'' that somehow the Rays and city will bury the hatchet and Sternberg will examine Carillon's travel times and financing ideas in detail.

"We feel there is no risk for the Rays to do this,'' LeClair said, almost wistfully. "Just give us two days.

The Carillon team "put lots of time and effort and love of the game into this project,'' he said. "To not have a lot to show for it, you are disappointed and perplexed.''

Private developer pitching new Tampa Bay Rays stadium says he's ready to move on 12/07/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 7, 2012 3:48pm]
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