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St. Pete voters don't want their tax money used to build a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium, poll shows

ST. PETERSBURG — Carolyn Booker was there when the Tampa Bay Rays played their first game at Tropicana Field.

The ardent fan is horrified by the notion that the team could one day leave St. Petersburg.

Even so, if the Rays get their way and a new stadium is built, she doesn't want her tax dollars used.

"I don't think we need to put money into that when everything around the city is suffering right now," said Booker, a 48-year-old cook for Pinellas County schools.

It's a sentiment shared by a majority of St. Petersburg voters, according to a new poll sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times.

And it isn't just an aversion to new taxes that is driving the opposition.

Sixty-two percent of voters said they would oppose the city committing tax money to build a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays even if it did not result in increased taxes for them personally. In contrast, 34 percent said they would support public funding for a new stadium.

The poll surveyed 600 registered city voters June 11-16 and has a 4 percent margin of error.

The results illustrate the challenge the Rays face in selling a new publicly funded stadium.

"These are difficult financial times," said Mayor Rick Baker. "People are going to have to be convinced that it is both good for the Rays and the citizens."

The Rays argue Tropicana Field is an outdated ballpark, with poorly designed seating and a closed roof that keeps out the fresh air and sunshine that baseball was meant to be played in.

Voters, nevertheless, remain unmoved.

Jackie Martin, a 37-year-old teacher, worries a new stadium would result in pricey tickets.

"The economy has pushed people back to basics. We don't need all the fanciness," she said.

What's more, the voters who did say they would approve of tax dollars being used said the money would have to come with some strings attached.

"They would have to guarantee that they won't leave for 50 years," said Art Nelson, 46, an engineer who watches every game. "And I'd like to see additional seats under city control, for city employees or school groups. If they are putting up more money, they should have some control of the seats."

The poll showed an electorate that isn't totally against spending.

Nearly 40 percent of voters said the city spends tax dollars wisely and efficiently most of the time. Fifty-two percent said they wanted to keep the Pier open, even thought it costs the city roughly $1.5 million a year.

Money for a stadium, however, could be better used elsewhere, they said.

"It's not a question of raising my taxes. It is a question of taxes I am paying being spent on something totally ridiculous," said Brian Merrigan, 27. "We already have a stadium."

St. Petersburg voters also aren't too keen on the idea of the Rays moving.

While the team has said a centrally located stadium could boost attendance, the voters' favored site was Tropicana Field, with 39 percent. The old Toytown landfill was the second most popular site, with 17 percent.

A community group studying new stadium sites said there is no plan on the table and any talk about how a new stadium would be funded is pure speculation.

"Until we get a location and who owns that land, you can't really talk about the funding," said Judy Mitchell, co-chairwoman of A Baseball Community Coalition.

One of the most influential players in the debate is yet to be cast.

The St. Petersburg mayor's race is wide open, and where the 11 candidates stand on the stadium could be a deciding factor in the Sept. 1 primary.

A majority of candidates said they will do what it takes to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg, whether that means negotiating a new contract or demanding the team stay at Tropicana Field.

More than half of the major candidates –– Kathleen Ford, Bill Foster, Scott Wagman, and Deveron Gibbons –– say the public should get to vote on the project. Larry Williams said he could support a referendum.

Ford said the Rays should stay at Tropicana Field or pay for their own new stadium in St. Petersburg.

"People realize that we have some issues that need to be addressed in the city of St. Petersburg, and a new baseball stadium is not one," said Ford, 52, a lawyer and former City Council member.

Gibbons, 36, a corporate executive, said he would oppose any tax increases to support a new stadium.

Williams, 64, said tax dollars will likely be needed, but he acknowledged it would be an uncertain pitch.

"I don't think anybody wants to spend tax dollars to build a new stadium," said Williams, a business owner and former council member. "But they still want the team here. It's kind of a conflicting story."

Foster, 46, said any existing debt on Tropicana Field would have to be paid off before his administration would consider a new stadium.

"The city and the county and the state and the Rays will need to be very creative in the financing of any new stadium if it is going to pass the muster of the public," said Foster, a lawyer and former City Council member.

Candidate Jamie Bennett said he would call for transparent negotiations.

"They just need to stop throwing out different ideas without having the community and the city government being involved in those decisions," said Bennett, 56, a City Council member. "If you get people involved in the entire process and tell them what it is going to cost and what they are going to get for it, you have a much better chance of it passing."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

St. Pete voters don't want their tax money used to build a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium, poll shows 06/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 5:34pm]

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