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Rays must overcome missteps in stadium plan

ST. PETERSBURG — After 20 months of secret planning, the Tampa Bay Rays circled December 2007 for the public launch of their ambitious waterfront stadium and redevelopment proposal.

The news, however, hit the pages of the St. Petersburg Times a month early, and the Rays have been playing catchup ever since.

At each pivotal step, the Rays have been caught off guard, either by criticisms or questions, according to local elected leaders.

The reactions and responses of team officials have further frustrated these leaders, who say they are getting an earful from opponents and little political cover from the team.

Now, with less than 60 days before the city and Rays must reach agreement on a $450-million ballpark, the team faces certain defeat unless the dynamics change and substantive negotiations begin.

The time for "we're working on that'' has ended.

"It's almost like they didn't have a road map of how county government works or how local government works in Pinellas," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.

• • •

The Rays' missteps, according to observers, are a combination of faulty execution by the team and unreasonable expectations by government.

Some of the problems were probably unavoidable.

The Rays could not pitch a financing plan — and promise that Tropicana Field redevelopment would offset the cost of a new stadium — before developers made offers to purchase the Trop site.

Other problems may fall directly on the Rays.

Why did the Rays wait so long to engage county officials when the team is asking for $100-million in county tourism tax funds?

Why are the Rays insisting on a November 2008 referendum when so many people are uncomfortable with a quick turnaround? Why are so many city and county questions answered with some variation of, "We don't know yet?''

Just last week, for instance, city officials received two detailed reports from the Rays on parking and the environment.

The city, meanwhile, produced its own analysis of the proposed Tropicana Field redevelopments.

At a televised meeting last month, City Council chairman Jamie Bennett grilled Rays' executives extensively, asking them to "redouble their efforts."

Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt, in turn, said he empathized with Bennett's frustrations but added that the team has complied with every request.

Not good enough, Bennett responded.

"If I had all the wishes I could have, I would wish this campaign would have gone an entirely different way," Bennett said later.

The back-and-forth has been typical of the 10-or-so public meetings between the city, the county and the Rays.

On Wednesday, a member of the county's Tourist Development Council asked the Rays if they could quantify the team's impact on the tourism economy — and not just the number of tickets out-of-towners buy.

"We don't have that information currently," responded Rays president Matt Silverman, a phrase familiar to local elected leaders. Silverman did say the team was hiring an economist to study the issue.

Moments later, Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart followed with a question about the Tropicana Field development.

Would it, he asked, negatively compete with a similar large-scale development the county is planning at its Toytown site in north St. Petersburg?

Silverman said he thought the developments could be complimentary, but, he added: "I agree that needs to be something … to work out."

• • •

Time for collecting those answers is running out.

The city and the Rays say they need to reach an agreement on the financing of a new $450-million ballpark by Aug. 1.

Preliminary agreements also must be struck on the operations of the ballpark and on parking.

"It's safe to assume, I think, that things are going to have to fall in place if this is to go forward," said Rick Mussett, the city's point person on the stadium talks. A recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll indicated that 68 percent of St. Petersburg voters opposed the Rays' plan.

On financing, Mussett said: "We haven't got to the point where we started exchanging specific ideas yet, but I think we will be talking to them in the very near future."

Rays officials have been waiting for those formal negotiations to begin.

"We're never going to get an answer to all this stuff unless we get into a room and talk to each other," said Rays point person Kalt. "It's either going to happen or it's not."

Kalt even suggested the city and team lock themselves in a room to help kick-start negotiations. Why, then, should the Rays be taking all the heat?

"That's the way it works," Kalt said. "We're the private party. We take the abuse because it's our idea. It's just part of the project.

"I don't really care about taking the roundhouse if at the end of the day we can get to a project that everyone can agree with."

Times staff writer Will Van Sant contributed to this report.

Rays must overcome missteps in stadium plan 06/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:13am]

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