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St. Petersburg City Council advised not to meet with baseball stadium coalition

ST. PETERSBURG — A decades-old rift between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties over Major League Baseball has once again bubbled to the fore.

For 18 months, a committee of community movers and shakers has studied whether the Tampa Bay Rays need a new stadium. Calling themselves the ABC Coalition, the group took on the project at the request of St. Petersburg's mayor.

Now they want to present their findings, but St. Petersburg's current mayor and City Council refuse to listen.

The reason? The coalition report considers the slim possibility of locating a new stadium in Hillsborough County.

"We appreciate ABC's efforts,'' City Attorney John Wolfe and Senior Administrator Rick Mussett wrote Tuesday in a memo to the council. "However, any relationship the city may have had with ABC has been effectively severed.''

The Rays are forbidden by contract to discuss playing anywhere but Tropicana Field through 2026. Nor can they conduct such discussions through third parties.

The ABC coalition, which consulted liberally with the Rays, concluded that the team needs the revenues of a modern, retractable roof stadium to remain consistently competitive. Construction would begin at some unspecified time after the economy improves.

From a purely demographic standpoint, the coalition said, the best locations would be the Gateway area of St. Petersburg, west Tampa and downtown Tampa.

Twice last year, St. Petersburg officials warned the coalition that continued talk of Hillsborough sites could violate the Tropicana Field contract.

On Monday, the coalition approved its final report and made plans to present it to the St. Petersburg City Council, as well as to the Pinellas County Commission and Pinellas visitors bureau, co-partners in Tropicana Field financing.

Then Tuesday's memo scuttled the St. Petersburg presentation.

"No third party should be interfering'' with the Tropicana Field contract, the memo said. "The city should not condone or permit, directly or indirectly, any such third party interference.''

Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran said she would not put the ABC presentation on the agenda.

The coalition "kind of took on a life of its own,'' she said. "The purpose of it to begin with, as far as I understand, was to focus on St. Petersburg, and I'm not willing to bring any idea forward that goes outside the city."

New Mayor Bill Foster concurred.

"The city is not going to do anything that indicates we don't still believe that Tropicana Field is a suitable stadium,'' he said.

County officials still want to hear the ABC presentation, economic development director Mike Meidel said Thursday, but budget deficit meetings might delay that until March or April.

County officials have expressed enthusiasm for building a stadium on the old Toytown landfill, which the county hopes to develop into a shopping and office complex. If traffic access and environmental problems can be solved, Toytown's Gateway location would satisfy the coalition's demographic criteria.

This week's developments mark another setback for the stadium idea, which has yet to gain much traction with the citizenry.

After working for months behind the scenes with then- Mayor Rick Baker in 2007, the Rays proposed a downtown waterfront stadium. They offered to pay a third of its $450 million pricetag.

The Rays never threatened to leave, but said they could not play at Tropicana Field through the end of their contract.

When that effort fizzled, Baker asked Progress Energy executive Jeff Lyash to head a committee to figure out how to assure baseball's success.

Lyash formed the ABC coalition, with 10 Pinellas business and community leaders and one Tampa CEO. Almost three dozen others served on subcommittees.

From early on, the coalition "decided to take a regional perspective,'' Sembler Co. executive and committee member Craig Sher said Thursday.

Among other things, the coalition decided that a maximum 30-minute drive time to the stadium was critical to decent attendance and corporate support, both low at Tropicana Field by Major League Baseball standards.

About 600,000 people can drive to Tropicana Field in 30 minutes, coalition studies indicated. But over 1 million could get to the Gateway, west Tampa and downtown Tampa in that time.

Baker bristled.

St. Petersburg taxpayers pay $6 million a year for Trop bonds. That money presumably might be applied to a new stadium when the bonds expire in 2016.

But any consideration of locations outside St. Petersburg "would be inconsistent with the objective which I initially laid out" for the coalition, Baker wrote last June.

Coalition member Alan Bomstein, a Clearwater business executive, told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Thursday that Pinellas County would have a large edge over Hillsborough in financing any new stadium.

Almost half of Tropicana Field was financed by Pinellas County's bed tax. Hillsborough's bed tax already is committed to pay off Raymond James Stadium, Steinbrenner Field and the St. Pete Times Forum, Bomstein said.

"From a purely financial standpoint, Pinellas would have a clear advantage," Bomstein said.

Also, Hillsborough officials are committed to regional cooperation and do not want to upset St. Petersburg over the Rays, Sher said. "I don't get the sense that Tampa or Hillsborough officials would enter into conversations (with the Rays),'' he said, "unless they were invited'' by St. Petersburg.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said she has no interest in wooing the Rays away from Pinellas County or St. Petersburg.

"I believe in regionalism, and I believe the assets of the region belong to all of us," she said.

Nevertheless, Sher said, St. Petersburg's refusal to hear the coalition's report was insulting.

"We did all this work at their behest,'' he said. "We may have had differing opinions of mission, but why not see us? All you have to do is ask questions.''

Rays vice president Michael Kalt confined himself to a one-sentence comment about the city's refusal to hear the report. For 18 months, the Rays have largely deferred to the coalition for public comment on stadium issues.

"We are not prepared to share our reaction at this time,'' Kalt said.

Both Curran and Foster said they would be happy to meet directly with the Rays on stadium issues.

"We are partners. We are not adversaries,'' Foster said. "I take this partnership very seriously.''

Times staff writers David DeCamp, Heather Urquides and Janet Zink contributed to this report.

.Fast facts

The ABC coalition

• Jeff Lyash, Progress Energy executive vice president

• Judy Mitchell, Peter Brown Construction, co-chair

• Alan Bomstein, Creative Contractors

• Rick Davis, St. Petersburg College

• Barbara Heck, Council of Neighborhood Associations

• Gregory Johnson, Pinellas County Urban League

• Russ Kimball, Sheraton Sand Key Resort

• Steve Raymund, Tech Data

• Craig Sher, the Sembler Company

• Robert Stewart, former Pinellas County commissioner.

• Chuck Sykes, Sykes Corp.

St. Petersburg City Council advised not to meet with baseball stadium coalition 01/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 12:28am]
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