ST. PETERSBURG — A draft report by the group examining possibilities for a new major league baseball stadium has provoked a pointed response from the city of St. Petersburg:
Tropicana Field is "fan friendly,'' the Tampa Bay Rays are legally required to play there for the next 17 years, and don't involve the Rays in Hillsborough stadium discussions without the city's approval.
That's the gist of an e-mail to the stadium group Wednesday by St. Petersburg development director Rick Mussett.
The ABC Coalition, which has suggested that the Rays need a new, retractable roof stadium, is scheduled to vote on the draft report today, after a year of meetings and analysis of five areas — including three in Hillsborough County— that might hold a new stadium.
"We look forward to the final report of the ABC Coalition. I know it will be a forward looking document that will aid this area in retaining (major league baseball) for our community,'' Mussett writes. "I do ask, though, that appropriate respect be given'' to the current use agreement on Tropicana Field.
Florida Progress CEO Jeff Lyash, who chairs the coalition, was unavailable for comment, but group member Craig Sher said the 11-member coalition is simply a private group trying to help baseball succeed in the Tampa Bay area.
"We view ourselves as a regional committee. That's why we invited people from Tampa to be on the committee,'' said Sher, who had not read Mussett's letter. "We are only a recommending body. The Rays and the city of St. Petersburg can take our information and do what they want with it.''
In his letter, Mussett notes that since the Rays started winning two years ago, Trop attendance has jumped 35 percent.
That increase "may not have been as significant as the Rays ownership had hoped for, but it definitely is a strong trend in the right direction,'' Mussett writes.
Mussett also questioned the coalition's analysis of five general "trade areas'' that might hold a new stadium.
The analysis focused on population, drive times and business distribution, ranking downtown Tampa, West Tampa and the Pinellas Gateway ahead of downtown St. Petersburg as places likely to attract fans and corporate support.
Though St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker sparked the formation of the coalition, its decision to study stadium locales in Hillsborough caused a rift with city officials, who stopped attending coalition meetings.
Any new stadium should be built at the current Trop site, Baker has said, or possibly in the Gateway area, which falls within city limits.
The Trop contract forbids the Rays from talking to other cities about leaving St. Petersburg before 2027, when the contract expires. Nor can third parties do so on the Rays' behalf.
Sher said coalition comments and documents have always shown respect for the work and tax money that St. Petersburg and Pinellas County committed toward building the Trop.
The draft report calls for more intensive study of both Pinellas and Hillsborough stadium locales, and more intensive studies presumably might need input from the Rays.
In his letter, Mussett suggests that the final ABC coalition report forbid the Rays from participating in any such studies without prior city approval. The Rays' have a long-standing policy of not commenting on stadium issues until the coalition makes its final report, probably early next year.
After the draft report is finished, the coalition hopes to meet with city and county officials to get their reaction, then issue a final report in a few months.
Baker asked Lyash to form the coalition in 2008 after the Rays aborted an unpopular push for a downtown St. Petersburg waterfront stadium.
Underlying the coalition's work was the presumption that the Rays need a modern stadium, with its higher revenue streams, if they want to retain favored players and play consistently competitive baseball.
Mussett's letter made several points.
• The Rays always knew that revenues at the dome would be lower than at other cities. That's why the Trop contract gave St. Petersburg a smaller slice of stadium revenues than fellow expansion city Phoenix received from the Diamondbacks. The dome was more of a Chevrolet-type stadium, not a Cadillac, original owner Vince Naimoli said.
• The Rays were one of only nine teams to increase attendance in 2009, though the Tampa Bay area had higher unemployment than all but two other major league markets.
• The coalition's analysis of drive times to different stadium locales should consider congestion. The Trop has multiple corridors and interstate interchanges for access, Mussett said.
"Conversely, the daily traffic congestion and the delays approaching downtown Tampa, and congestion on I-275 and the connecting streets leading to Raymond James Stadium during major events would impact drive times to a new venue in those areas.''
Sher, a Rays fan, did not dispute that the Trop is fan friendly, but said, "we need a stadium that is more fan friendly.
A modern stadium with open concessions concourses and attractive luxury boxes will draw more season ticket holders and corporate support, he said.
That 35 percent rise in attendance, coming after a World Series appearance, was built from a very low base, Sher noted.
"The proof in the pudding will come in this coming year, after they didn't make the playoffs.''