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Residents divided over Tampa Bay Rays' need for a stadium, not in distaste for a tax

Tampa business executive Juli Greenwald, 49, is not a sports fan and certainly opposes spending tax money on a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

"There are tons of more priorities for this community,'' she says, like light rail and good schools.

St. Petersburg resident Craig Bauer, 56, likes riding the bus to Tropicana Field for day games. But his affection for the team stops short of public outlays.

"They are a moneymaking operation. They are big business. They should pay for their own stadium,'' he says. "Concession prices are unreasonable — a hot dog for $6, $7 for a soda. It's crazy.''

As divisive as the stadium debate can be, taxes are the one issue that binds Pinellas and Hillsborough county residents, fans and nonfans.

A recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 telephone survey showed that two-thirds of Tampa Bay area residents oppose paying taxes for a new stadium — even if that means the team would leave the area. Only a quarter of residents would open their wallets to keep the Rays in town.

This antitax sentiment, coming on the heels of light rail flameout in Hillsborough, presents a stiff challenge to the Rays, who want to replace the Trop, and to business leaders and politicians looking for ways to finance a new venue.

Though huge markets like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have supported privately financed stadiums, new ballparks in mid-level markets usually can't generate enough new revenue to cover construction costs.

The Tampa Bay area, where unemployment tops 12 percent, is in no mood for subsidies. Half of residents polled said they would be opposed to committing public money to a stadium even if their individual taxes did not rise — such as the city of St. Petersburg supporting a new stadium by renewing Tropicana Field's bonds after they expire in 2015.

The survey, taken of 300 Pinellas and 300 Hillsborough residents, also shed light on other aspects of the area's relationship with Major League Baseball:

• Seventy-seven percent of Pinellas residents said they have attended at least one Rays game, as well as 62 percent of Hillsborough residents. Men attended more than women, and people under 55 were more likely to go more than those 55 or older.

• The main reason people cited for not going is that they aren't baseball fans. The next most common reason given by Hillsborough residents was the Trop's location. Twenty-six percent said they would attend more games if the stadium were closer. In Pinellas, 30 percent of fans said they would attend more often if games cost less.

• Thirty seven percent of Hills­borough residents said they would prefer a Tampa stadium location, though 32 percent liked the Trop site, perhaps reflecting a reluctance to fund a new stadium.

The poll's overall margin of error was 4 percentage points. The margin for county breakdowns was 5.7 percentage points.

Interviews with individual respondents showed a rich diversity of circumstance and belief.

William Faedo, 63, grew up in west Tampa with former New York Yankees player Tino Martinez. He's not keen on higher taxes for a stadium, but would at least consider a referendum if that's what it took to keep the Rays in the area.

"You look at cities that lost NFL franchises and all of them either got them back or have gotten a new team,'' Faedo says. "That tells me that sports can contribute to the economic health of the community, not to mention the pride that goes with it."

Faedo would be delighted to see a stadium in downtown Tampa, which is 8 to 10 minutes from his home.

Robert Shaffer, 45, a retired stock broker in north St. Petersburg, sees a publicly financed stadium as "an investment in the community. Tampa and St. Petersburg, to move forward, to have a big city mentality, need a train, need a stadium.''

Without a stadium, "the Rays will be gone in five years,'' Shaffer says. "Everybody thinks they are making money hand over fist, but they actually are not. If you can't have a decent place and attract a lot of people and increase TV viewership and charge a lot for hot dogs, you are going to leave and go somewhere you can.''

Attendance at the Trop suffers, he says, because many fans don't feel safe in the neighborhood. The Pinellas Gateway, on the west end of the Howard Frankland Bridge, or somewhere else in St. Petersburg would be a better location.

Vonda Andrade, 45, is disabled and can ill afford Rays tickets or the hour-plus drive to the Trop from her home in the Lithia area of east Hillsborough. But she would be willing to tax herself to keep the team in town.

The reason?

"I have a 24-year-old son, a 9-year-old, and a 10-year-old son and they idolize the Rays,'' she says.

The family watches on television every night and makes a few games a year, she says.

"They talk about certain players and they light up. It's important for kids to have something like that.''

Carl Moesching, 63, a risk analyst who lives in northwest Hills­borough, loves the Trop and its air conditioning. The drive from his home takes about 45 minutes, which he doesn't see as substantially longer than contending with rush hour traffic to downtown Tampa and navigating clogged streets for a parking spot.

But it sticks in his craw that taxpayers funded a new football stadium for the Glazer family, "with all their money,'' and he wouldn't want to feel the same about the Rays.

"I don't know that sports teams need to be subsidized,'' he said. "Especially now with the economy the way it is.''

Residents divided over Tampa Bay Rays' need for a stadium, not in distaste for a tax 12/24/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 25, 2010 10:27pm]
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