ST. PETERSBURG — Residents of St. Petersburg want the opportunity to vote on the Tampa Bay Rays' $450-million waterfront stadium proposal, but a majority of voters oppose the project, according to an exclusive St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll.
Sixty percent of residents said the City Council should schedule a November referendum on the stadium proposal rather than stop the process altogether.
But 68 percent oppose the Rays' complex stadium and redevelopment plan, according to the poll of 601 St. Petersburg voters on May 27-28.
The poll signals that the team faces significant hurdles before the plan could be approved. In a similar survey by the Times last November, only 44 percent of voters said they did not support the Rays' plan.
But the latest poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, also supports the Rays' case for settling the stadium issue by a citywide vote.
The City Council is scheduled on June 5 to make the first of three necessary votes to schedule a referendum. The other votes are scheduled July 17 and Aug. 7.
"We're encouraged that the people want to vote ... it seems like a pretty clear mandate," said Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt.
But "we know we've got a lot of work to do to convince people," Kalt said. "We know we have our work cut out for us."
Parking, cost emerge as key issues
Though a debate over the merits of a new stadium may be raging, on one point most everyone agrees:
Parking will be a problem at a downtown 34,000-seat ballpark.
An overwhelming 82 percent of city voters say downtown lacks the parking needed for a new ballpark at Al Lang Field. Only 9 percent said parking wasn't an issue.
"Downtown St. Petersburg is already congested. I don't go there," said city resident Kate Petroczy, 57. "There's not enough safe parking. And I emphasize safe."
But parking is not the Rays' largest problem.
More than 50 percent of voters said "the cost to taxpayers" was one of their biggest concerns.
And when asked if voters would be willing to extend tax payments at Tropicana Field to pay for a new stadium, 59 percent said no.
The extension of tax payments — split roughly between the city and the county — is the crux of the Rays' financing plan.
The team says it will contribute $150-million to the project with the extension of government tax payments generating an additional $175-million. The rest of the money would come from the sale of Tropicana Field and parking revenues created by the new ballpark.
The Rays contend that the public investment will be offset by the new revenues generated from the redevelopment of Tropicana Field.
City leaders were unsure how to interpret the poll.
On one hand, voters seem ready for a public referendum. On the other, they are highly skeptical of the Rays' proposal.
Some city leaders speculated that voters wanted to give the Rays more time to make their case, or that voters want to definitively end all talk about a new stadium.
"My guess is people typically lean toward having the right to vote," said Mayor Rick Baker.
City Council member Jeff Danner said it might be related to the city's decision to build Tropicana Field, which was made without a referendum.
"You hear a lot of people who say it should go to referendum and let the people decide," Danner said. "I think that comes from the fact that people didn't get to decide last time. I think there's a lot of people who want a referendum so they can vote no."
Added council member Herb Polson: "What your poll is telling me is, 'Give us the chance to vote so we can say no because we don't want it on the Al Lang site.'"
Six months before potential city vote
Boosted by the news that voters support a referendum, the Rays sought to downplay the level of concern among voters.
The whole story, the Rays say, has yet to be shared.
Agreements have yet to be reached on a financing plan, the redevelopment of Tropicana Field, a workable parking plan for a ballpark downtown, and a stadium lease between the city and the team.
"We're six months through a 12-month process," Kalt said. "We think we can overcome (the skepticism). It requires us doing a better job of connecting with people."
Kalt also suggested that the random telephone survey may not be completely accurate. Only 6 percent of poll respondents were African-American residents. Citywide, African-American residents make up 19.6 percent of all registered voters.
The Rays' have been courting African-American voters based on the potential opportunities created by the redevelopment of Tropicana Field.
On Friday, the local branches of the NAACP and Urban League, along with two local African-American pastors held a press conference at City Hall supporting a referendum.
City Council chairman Jamie Bennett, who estimates that the proposal has a 20 percent chance of succeeding, said that a public vote may be the only way to put the stadium question behind residents.
"You're going to keep talking about this until we decide," Bennett said. "If you don't have that vote, there won't be finality."
For more results of the poll, see the Times' new stadium blog, Ballpark Frankness, at blogs.tampabay.com/ballpark.