ST. PETERSBURG — With less than three weeks to go before the City Council decides whether to move forward with a downtown waterfront stadium, one council member has a message for his colleagues: Slow down.
Herb Polson, the only elected official to publicly oppose the Tampa Bay Rays' stadium plan, is speaking from experience.
More than two decades ago, Polson was a city employee doing what the Rays are trying to do now: securing funding for a new baseball stadium, ensuring the design works and selling people on the idea. That work led to Tropicana Field.
"I'm not just the new guy on the street who is saying that this doesn't look like a good idea," said Polson, 59. "I'm not smarter than any of these people, but I think there is an awful lot to figure out in a very short time."
That skeptical stance has quickly made Polson a hero among those who oppose the Rays' plan, even as other elected officials remain neutral. The council must decide on June 5 whether to schedule a referendum Nov. 4.
Polson, who spent most of his 30 years with the city as its lobbyist before retiring in August 2006, said he doesn't know how he will vote next month. But he calls the proposed stadium unnecessary and the team's timeline "unrealistic."
"The developers' proposals still have holes in them," he said. "Who is going to cover the demolition costs? Who is going to pay if there is environmental damage underneath the Tropicana?"
Stadium supporters suggest Polson should give the proposal a fair chance.
"My hope is he would see the benefit of having the citizens have a voice in this as opposed to 18 years ago when they did not," said Kenny Locke, founder of Fans for Waterfront Stadium. "The entire city needs to be able to vote on this."
Polson is a lifelong baseball fan and has a cordial relationship with the Rays. Rays president Matthew Silverman and Michael Kalt, the team's senior vice president of development and business affairs, donated $250 each to his re-election campaign last fall.
"He recognizes the importance of baseball in St. Pete," said Kalt. "He spent (part) of his life trying to bring it here."
But his love of baseball has not stopped Polson from voting against the new ballpark.
In January, he was the lone dissenting voice when the council voted to ask developers for proposals to purchase and redevelop Tropicana Field. Earlier this month, Polson cast the only vote against moving forward with negotiations with two of the three bidders wanting to redevelop Tropicana Field.
Most recently, he asked the council to demand the bidders guarantee the city it would not be at financial risk if anything went wrong during the redevelopment. The council declined.
Some people see political motives behind Polson's opposition.
"He is looking for political leverage," said council Chairman Jamie Bennett, who plans to run for mayor next year. "You can be against something all along and then all of a sudden vote for it in the end. It happens all the time. It is just posturing."
Indeed, "Herb Polson for Mayor" has become somewhat of a rallying cry among opponents of the stadium. People stop Polson at the supermarket to thank him. Supporters send encouraging e-mails to City Hall.
"I have always liked you," wrote Susan Wallace in one recent letter. "But now I am really a big fan of yours!!!! Thank you for being the, unfortunately, lone voice of reason on our starry-eyed city council."
The compliments are nice, but Polson plans to finish out his term, which expires in 2012.
"I am not doing it for political gain," he said. "This is literally a $1-billion issue. We should know as much information as absolutely possible."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]