ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays' path to a November stadium referendum passed a critical test Thursday, but City Council members remained nowhere close to endorsing the $1-billion-plus stadium and redevelopment plan.
By the end of Thursday's meeting, many even seemed resigned to thinking the Rays' proposal will surely fail.
"We're making a reservation for the referendum. Period," said council member Leslie Curran, making sure no one interpreted larger meaning behind her support. In fact, Curran asked Rays' officials to delay the stadium question altogether, which the Rays said they would not do.
Curran later called their decision "bull-headed."
"The people historically in this city they really have a problem with giving up the waterfront," said City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett, who was already talking about alternative locations. "Anybody who's lived in this city ... it's engraved on their heart: Protect that waterfront."
Still, the council voted 7-1 to schedule a first public hearing on a referendum July 17. Only Herb Polson, who has complained about the time frame associated with the Rays' proposal, voted no.
The council also rejected without a vote an alternative referendum proposal by council member Karl Nurse. Nurse's proposal, which was taken from stadium opponents, would have prohibited a 34,000-seat baseball stadium being built on the downtown waterfront.
If both the Rays' proposal and Nurse's measure passed in November, the one with the most votes would have been adopted.
Council members called the alternative confusing.
"This is really muddying the waters," council member Bill Dudley said. "We are trying to keep it simple."
The debate lasted more than two hours in council chambers, which was largely empty compared with previous stadium discussions.
Much of the meeting followed a familiar script. Administration officials made presentations about what they know, and council members criticized them, and the Rays, for not knowing more.
At one point, Mayor Rick Baker said Polson was "barking" to his staff.
"If I choose to bark, you will hear it," Polson responded, which was followed by an apology from Baker.
Council members did, however, receive new information regarding both the redevelopment of Tropicana Field and the cost to build the $450-million stadium.
On Tropicana Field, city internal services administrator Mike Connors said that it may cost as little as $94,000 to haul away the last 1,550 cubic yards of contaminated soil underneath a portion of the Tropicana parking lot.
The number is just a fraction of estimates tossed out by opponents of the stadium.
"We've been hearing ... it's going to cost millions of dollars in mitigation," said council member Bill Dudley. "That the stadium was built on some kind of really bad contaminated soil and they just covered up really quick. So those are just urban myths?"
Those statements, Connors said, were "inaccurate."
And on financing, city officials also offered a new detail: Bids from Archstone-Madison and Hines to purchase Tropicana Field fall $2-million to $6-million short of the $70-million needed to pay off the remaining debt at the Trop.
The city officials said they believe developers may either increase their offers or that another solution could be reached.
Baker, who is yet uncommitted on the Rays' proposal, urged council members to keep negotiations open nevertheless.
"We're at the point where we have the information we have and we don't have the information we don't have," Baker said. "The real question is, does council want to continue the process of evaluating the proposal over the next couple of months?
"If by August we don't all have the comfort levels, this doesn't go anywhere."
Times staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report.