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Rays stadium plan lacks a champion

With two key decisions looming, the Tampa Bay Rays have yet to find a vocal backer among the elected leaders needed to approve financing for a new stadium.

Some St. Petersburg City Council members and Pinellas County commissioners say it's hard to see a political advantage in supporting the $450-million plan.

To some the process seems rushed. Officials say there's been little communication between the Rays, the city and the county. And the timing couldn't be worse.

"We're both sort of standing at the starting line saying, 'Who is going to go first?' " County Commission Chairman Bob Stewart said of county and city leadership. "And at this point nobody wants to make the first move."

All of which suggests that the Rays face more tough hurdles.

The team proposes a public-private partnership to build its waterfront ballpark. Public funding sources would include $100-million from extending a 1-cent-on-the-dollar county tax on hotel stays for 25 to 30 years and $75-million from extending a city excise tax for a similar period.

Thursday, the City Council will hold the first of three votes needed to schedule a November referendum where St. Petersburg voters would decide whether to use some of their waterfront for the new ballpark.

Mayor Rick Baker late Friday recommended the City Council approve that first referendum vote, though he remains noncommittal on the overall project.

On June 11, the county's Tourism Development Council will hear a presentation from the Rays. The council later is expected to recommend whether to extend the hotel bed tax. The County Commission has the final say.

A failure either to put the referendum on the ballot or to extend the bed tax would doom the Rays proposal, at least in the near term.

Some county leaders say they can't imagine supporting a bed tax extension until the people of St. Petersburg weigh in. And some city leaders say it's difficult to support putting the ballpark to a referendum when county funding is uncertain.

City Council member Jeff Danner said he's bothered that the Rays and the county haven't already reached a deal.

"If the TDC or the county shoots down their part of the financing, then we don't have a say," Danner said. "I want us to be able to ask, 'Is this right for the city of St. Petersburg?' I don't want them to kill it for us."

County Commissioner Susan Latvala said she's frustrated that there has been "zero communication" between the city and county. She charges that St. Petersburg has failed to get serious about the project and hold talks with all involved.

"The ball is in their court," Latvala said. "And they don't seem ready to swing. So maybe this isn't going anywhere."

Herb Polson, a City Council member who has been critical of the entire process, said he has several times requested a joint city-county meeting, but has yet to get an answer.

Interim County Administrator Fred Marquis said he's not gotten any formal requests for a joint meeting.

Regardless, Marquis said the County Commission could deliver a decision on the bed tax in late July or early August, before the City Council has to make a final decision on holding a referendum.

"Those pieces may yet come together so that everybody has the information they need before it goes to referendum," he said.

Like Polson, City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett defends City Hall. He blames the Rays.

"It's not the city's job to communicate," Bennett said. "It has always been the Rays' job to sell this deal."

Michael Kalt, the team's senior vice president of development and business affairs, says the Rays have not fallen short. The team has tried to answer questions promptly, he said, and has briefed local leaders involved several times.

The Rays are willing and eager to get the parties together, Kalt said.

"It would be a shame to let the project wither on the vine and let it die because basically there wasn't the will to get in a room and talk through the issues," he said.

But given local government's recent loss of property tax revenue, leaders like Latvala say they've got other priorities. Support for the stadium plan, she said, is politically a "stupid idea."

"We're cutting the parks, we're cutting social services, we're cutting public safety," she said. "But, by golly, we have a new baseball stadium."

If that weren't enough, getting support from the tourism council to continue a penny bed tax for the Rays stadium will be a challenge. The group consists largely of tourism businesspeople who are uneasy with dedicating future revenue to sports team.

They would like to see bed tax dollars used for beach renourishment and tourism promotion.

"The biggest hurdle is going to be the bed tax," said Stewart, who also serves as a county representative on the tourism council and is the group's current chairman. "If that doesn't happen, then we don't need to debate these other issues, because the plan ain't going to work."

If the tourism council doesn't recommend extending the bed tax, it will be very difficult for county commissioners to approve using that money for a new stadium, Stewart said.

For such a move to take place, a game-changing development would be needed, he said, such as the Rays threatening to leave Tampa Bay.

"That is the 100-pound gorilla that is underneath the blanket that hasn't shown its face yet," Stewart said.

But that face is unlikely to appear.

The team's goal is to persuade local leaders of a new stadium's benefits, not make threats, Kalt said.

"If that's the thing that's going to move this along, then I guess we're not going to move this along," Kalt said. "Maybe that makes us politically naive or crazy, but we're not politicians."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or

(727) 445-4166.

Rays stadium plan lacks a champion 05/31/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 2, 2008 4:13pm]
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