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Stadium debate grows hostile

ST. PETERSBURG — Round 2 of the public stadium debate was slightly more hostile, with threats of lawsuits and a public recall, but it failed to clarify the fate of the $450-million plan for the Tampa Bay Rays to move to Al Lang Field.

After nearly four hours of public testimony, only one obvious theme emerged: This debate, however it ends, will be messy.

The final tally, according to several unofficial counts: About 120 in favor of the new stadium, and 95 against.

"The people have spoken," said Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt, mocking a similar comment made by a stadium opponent after the February public hearing. "The people have spoken and there is clear momentum on our side. And it's building."

The meeting was not without theatrics. St. Pete Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront member Steve Lange suggested that if the city continues pursuing the stadium, elected leaders could face a potential lawsuit or recall campaign. Another speaker publicly chastised Mayor Rick Baker for not attending the first public forum in February.

"What is wrong with Tropicana Field?" asked resident Lee Nolan. "How about the sorriest team in all of professional sports. ... These New York City carpetbaggers are setting a new standard for greed."

Others simply said they wanted a chance to vote on the project, up or down.

"I want the chance to vote on this tremendous opportunity for our city," said downtown resident Gary Grooms.

"The situation demands a referendum," added former council member Jay Lasita, who is working with one of the bidders to redevelop Tropicana Field. "You should never fear what the outcome of the vote is going to be. They are the ones that pay the bills."

One for, one against

On Thursday, one prominent neighborhood group game out against the stadium proposal while a group of more than 100 business owners said they supported the plan.

The city's Council of Neighborhood Organizations issued a 12-page report recommending against a November referendum to approve or reject a new waterfront stadium for the Rays.

The neighborhood group said the city has failed to explore other potential stadium locations, and that the Rays' $450-million financing plan appears flawed.

"We are objecting to the building of the stadium on Al Lang Field," said Will Michaels, chairman of CONA's Historic Resources and Land Development Committee. "But we're not saying at some future point that a referendum shouldn't be held."

Michaels said that the group believes that there could be potentially better offers to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site. He said he had not heard of any, however.

Meanwhile, pro-stadium group Fans For Waterfront Stadium, submitted a petition of 115 business owners supporting the stadium and redevelopment proposal and a potential November referendum.

The petition includes business owners from all corners of the city, said Tracey Locke with Fans For Waterfront Stadium.

"These are business owners who want to vote," Locke said.

The timeline

Opponents Thursday drilled council members on the Rays' timetable. Speakers walked a careful line saying they want citizens to vote on the stadium proposal, but not in November. One person suggested holding a referendum in November 2009, opposite a mayoral election.

Opponents say too many questions remain to go forward. They listed several outstanding issues Thursday — from the cost of the project, to the parking and traffic plan, to concerns for the environment.

City staff is expected to make a recommendation whether or not to begin negotiations on a possible Tropicana redevelopment April 23. The council is scheduled to vote on the staff's recommendation May 1.

If the proposal moves forward, a first of three votes needed to schedule a referendum would occur June 5. The last would come Aug. 7. A "no" vote on any of the three public votes would stop the process before a referendum.

A third public hearing is scheduled for May 22.

Stadium debate grows hostile 04/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 1:47pm]
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