ST. PETERSBURG — Upon hiring his political campaign manager last year as the city's sports marketing consultant, Mayor Bill Foster promised he wasn't playing favorites and that his adviser's hiring would return dividends for taxpayers.
"When you look at the connections he has in the sports world and what he can do for the city, the city will benefit," Foster said, explaining why Jim Neader was hired with a no-bid, one-year contract that pays him $50,000.
Neader's hire was a reminder of the city's strong mayor form of government. Foster didn't need the City Council's approval to hire his adviser because the contract was less than $100,000. So Neader is answerable only to Foster, leaving the council out of the loop.
"I've heard nothing about (Neader)," said Herb Polson. "The mayor hasn't briefed us on him."
Nearly a year after he was hired, it's difficult to evaluate Neader's contribution to the city. That's partly due to the elusive nature of signing top sporting events. It can take years for top events to agree to come because it can take that long for details to get worked out. Neader's value also is hard to define because not everyone agrees on what he has accomplished.
Foster and city officials say Neader has surpassed expectations. They are drafting an extension to his contract, which expires at the end of this month. But in a reading of his current contract, he has met only one of several main goals: bringing international baseball to Al Lang Field
The former spring training home of the Tampa Bay Rays, the field has gone without pro ball since the club left last year to train in Charlotte County. With no Major League clubs available, top international teams were next on Foster's wish list.
Neader, 59, delivered in getting the Seoul Nexen Heroes of South Korea and the national teams from Canada and the Netherlands to play a total of 13 games there, beginning Feb. 21 and ending March 13.
"He brought in Canada," Foster said. "He brought the Dutch. He also got the Koreans to play here. Without him, it doesn't happen."
The Australian national team is planning to play this summer, and another team could commit this fall. More teams could be added in 2012, making St. Petersburg a hub for international competition.
Urban Style Flats is one example of what international baseball can bring to the city, Neader and city officials say. Occupying a former public housing complex, the renovated hotel will host the teams and provide meals.
"This creates jobs," Neader said. "We'll have close to 10,000 visits. This will bring new people to downtown. I think the staff is happiest that we're able to bring back what you would call major league baseball to Al Lang Field. This city was founded on spring training, and we restored that."
But other goals on Neader's 2010 contract are, at least so far, incomplete. He was to help lure or create a wide variety of events, including getting the city to host a world baseball tournament, a series between countries and tournament games for the World Baseball Classic.
Neader and Foster said those goals are still being worked on.
He was to have worked with staff to develop other sporting events or bring existing ones to St. Petersburg. Neader said he's still vying to bring the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, a popular event held in several cities. He has also been involved in talks to lure the professional soccer team FC Tampa Bay, which recently changed its name from the Tampa Bay Rowdies, to play at Al Lang.
"Getting Al Lang Field used was the main priority," said Joe Zeoli, the managing director of administration and finance in city development. "It was that and the St. Pete Sports Alliance that wouldn't have happened without Neader."
The alliance was another goal outlined in Neader's contract. Neader was to work with the alliance to develop and recruit major sporting events that could generate money for the city. Yet despite a splashy news conference in May in which Foster introduced the alliance's all star cast of athletes — like former Buccaneer Mike Alstott and LPGA golf champ Brittany Lincicome — the alliance has vanished from public view.
Zeoli and Neader said they don't remember how many times the alliance has met.
They didn't have an updated list of members or minutes. Zeoli said most meetings were held at Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill. "A lot of ideas for sporting events are coming," Neader said.
It's also unclear how instrumental Neader was in fundraising.
The 13 games the city will host this spring at Al Lang Field don't come free. It costs money to pay for ushers, umpires, balls, security and travel expenses of the teams. In these tight economic times, Foster doesn't want to lose money in hosting these games.
But to do that requires private money to subsidize the costs. Neader did that, Zeoli and Foster say, by raising money to pay for the games.
Foster said Neader got a state grant that would pay as much as $76,000. But when Neader was asked how he helped get the grant, Neader said he played no role.
"Joe (Zeoli) can answer that," Neader said. "I wasn't involved."
Zeoli said Neader was instrumental in raising $74,600 from private donors.
"The contributions were all done by Jim," Zeoli said. "He's a great resource for the city. He knows the vision the mayor has and is able to communicate that."
Gus Stavros, a wealthy GOP donor, philanthropist and avid baseball fan, said it was Foster who called him and asked for his help in raising money for international baseball. Worried that downtown's waterfront area had some facilities that were struggling, such as BayWalk, the Pier, and the Mahaffey Theater, Stavros said he was eager to do anything to give Al Lang Field a jolt.
"We need to get people out there," said Stavros, 85, who owns about 1 percent of the Tampa Bay Rays and chipped in $9,000.
He, Neader and Foster hosted a luncheon at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club in June that asked top donors, chosen mostly from Stavros' wealthy contacts, to contribute.
James MacDougald is friends with Stavros and is president of the Free Enterprise Nation, a website that criticizes government spending. He said he met Neader at the June luncheon but hasn't seen him since. He gave $10,000 because he runs a nonprofit that hosts world leaders who visit the Tampa Bay area. Baseball would introduce the region to portions of the world that have never heard of Tampa Bay.
Robert McIntyre, CEO of Ditek, a manufacturer of surge protectors, said he was invited by Stavros, a longtime friend. He contributed $5,000 and plans to spend another $5,000 to buy tickets. He said Neader sold him on the concept that games at Al Lang Field will boost the local economy.
"International baseball will bring so much to the area," McIntyre said. "I don't see a downside."
William R. Hough, a wealthy philanthropist who is treasurer of the Salvador Dalí Museum, contributed $10,000, a month after Foster got the City Council to approve $2.5 million for the museum's construction. His son, W. Robb Hough Jr., contributed $2,000.
Stavros and city officials said there was no quid pro quo with those who gave to the campaign.
Jeff Brandes, who won his race for state representative in the fall, knows Neader through political circles. In the fall, Neader hosted a fundraiser for him. Brandes said he gave $5,000, but it had nothing to do with that support. Foster endorsed Brandes in late October, but it wasn't in exchange for his contribution, he said.
"No, I contributed because it was a great idea to get better use out of these dormant facilities," Brandes said.
Neader said he'd give most of the fundraising credit to the Sports Alliance, again, minimizing his role. He said he spent most of his time establishing the schedules for the upcoming spring season. He spent hours coordinating with the different teams.
Zeoli said the city is happy with Neader's job so far.
"He's done an incredible job," Zeoli said. "We've been very pleased. He has delivered more than what we hoped for in the first year."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or email@example.com.