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Tampa Bay Rays say waterfront stadium is off table, downtown site questionable

ST. PETERSBURG — A ballpark on the waterfront is out, and so may be any location in downtown St. Petersburg.

The Tampa Bay Rays have abandoned thoughts of an open-air stadium at the site of Al Lang Field.

"It's pretty clear people did not want a ballpark down there," Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt said Friday. "From what we're seeing, we're probably in that camp, too.

"For us, Al Lang's not an option."

Kalt said the Rays have not considered Al Lang Field a viable stadium site for months. That acknowledgement came during a brief interview Friday morning.

Perhaps more telling is that team officials are unsure if a new stadium could succeed anywhere in downtown St. Petersburg, including at Tropicana Field. They say the ballclub is more likely to succeed in a new stadium in north St. Petersburg, closer to the center of the Tampa Bay area.

"We think there are big issues with downtown St. Petersburg as a site," Kalt said, noting the population surrounding downtown is roughly half of the population surrounding possible sites in north St. Petersburg. Those include the Toytown landfill, vacant land in the Carillon area, or the Derby Lane property.

The Rays' position on downtown drew a quick response from Mayor Rick Baker's administration. Baker wants to keep the Rays downtown, as do five of six major mayoral candidates.

"We are not sure what issues the Rays are referring to for a downtown stadium site," said David Goodwin, city economic development director. "We still consider downtown as a vibrant development location and an excellent stadium site."

Rays officials say they took a gamble on the Al Lang waterfront location when it was first proposed in November 2007. It was the cheapest site to build on, and team officials hoped a stylized stadium and iconic roof would lure people and businesses downtown.

Kalt said Friday that team officials probably miscalculated.

Support for the project, marginal at best even in its infancy, began to fully erode once the team postponed indefinitely a November 2008 referendum on it.

Demographic information trickled out supporting a location farther north, and skepticism grew about the design of the proposed roof. The stadium would not have been fully enclosed like Tropicana Field.

"I think they thought everyone would fall in love with their idea, and we didn't," said City Council member and mayoral candidate Jamie Bennett, who is proposing an amendment to the City Charter to protect Al Lang Field from public development.

The city is in the process of rezoning the site as parkland and will consider a 75-foot height limit. Council members could approve both measures next month.

On Friday, those who fought the stadium plan most aggressively cheered the Rays' retreat.

"It's very good," said Hal Freedman, who founded the group Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront. "Our aim was to preserve both the waterfront and taxpayer wallets. Not having the waterfront stadium goes a long way to one of our two goals."

The Rays' concerns about downtown won't stop a group of civic leaders from considering the area for a new ballpark. Nor will the concerns stop some of the city's mayoral candidates from pitching the Tropicana site as the best place to build a new ballpark.

Members of the civic group A Baseball Community are examining potential sites in downtown and north St. Petersburg, and could have a recommendation for a stadium within a year. A move to Tampa is difficult because of an agreement between the city of St. Petersburg and the Rays to keep the team in St. Petersburg through 2027.

Mayoral campaigns, meanwhile, praised the Rays for ending the discussion about the waterfront. No candidate publicly supported the team's waterfront plan.

Bennett, Larry Williams and Bill Foster say they want to keep the Rays downtown. Deveron Gibbons says he prefers a downtown site but would explore a stadium at the former Toytown landfill. Kathleen Ford renewed calls Friday to enforce the Rays' contract to keep them playing in Tropicana Field through 2027.

Scott Wagman, the only candidate who has left the door open to the Rays building a stadium outside of St. Petersburg, but in Pinellas County, said the city needs to finish its own analysis before picking a preferred site.

"I have learned that jumping to conclusions, especially on large scale issues and projects, usually ends up with a bad result," Wagman said. "It doesn't do us any good to shut doors."

Foster, a former City Council member who was among the first to ask the Rays to abandon the waterfront site, said Friday the waterfront proposal was flawed from its inception.

"I've been here 46 years. Some things you know will work and some things you know won't," Foster said. "These guys are new, but they're starting to come around. I commend them."

Staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

. Time line

No to waterfront

November 2007: Rays announce plans for $450 million waterfront, open-air stadium at Al Lang Field. Stadium would require a citywide referendum in November 2008.

January 2008: Team scuttles plan to seek $60 million state stadium subsidy. Anti-waterfront stadium group Protect Our Wallets and Waterfront forms.

March 2008: Team suggests using tourism bed tax dollars to help fund construction.

May 2008: Rays release preliminary financing plan; city officials complain numbers don't add up.

June 2008: Rays abandon plans for November 2008 referendum; Mayor Rick Baker announces creation of stadium task force.

January: Rays release details about seven potential ballpark sites in Pinellas County, including Al Lang Field.

May: All major mayoral candidates say they oppose a waterfront ballpark for the Rays.



Al Lang Field

Owner: City of St. Petersburg

Population within 30-minute drive: 539,312

Why the Rays have rejected the idea: Support began to erode once the team postponed a November 2008 referendum on the proposal. Also, skepticism grew about the design of the roof for the stadium. Data show support for a location farther north.

Tropicana Field

Owner: Pinellas County

Population within 30-minute drive: 615,722

Why the Rays are cool to the idea: Rays officials say the team is more likely to succeed in a new stadium in north St. Petersburg, closer to the center of the Tampa Bay area. Such a location would mean more people are closer to the stadium, they note.

St. Petersburg- Clearwater Airport, Airco Golf Course

Owner: Pinellas County

Population within 30-minute drive: 1,079,949

Advantages: • Closest site to Clearwater and north Pinellas County. • Owned by the county, potentially available for free. • Potentially 2,000 acres.

Carillon Town Center

Owner: Echelon

Population within 30-minute drive: 1,221,008

Advantages: • Centrally located. • Large population within 30-minute drive. • Parking already available in complex.

Derby Lane

Owner: St. Petersburg Kennel Club

Population within 30-minute drive: 921,876

Advantages: • Closest site to Tampa. •A large site, at 80 to 85 developable acres, which could be used for parking or mixed-use development.

Sod farm

Owner: Tarpon Ridge Inc.

Population within 30-minute drive: 1,004,658

Advantages: Adjacent to Interstate 275, south of the new Valpak headquarters. • Considered as a location for Tropicana Field.

Toytown landfill

Owner: Pinellas County

Population within 30-minute drive: 1,177,745

Advantages: • County interested in redeveloping site. • Good location. • Enough land to include larger development.

Tropicana Field

Owner: Pinellas County

Population within 30-minute drive: 615,722

Why the Rays have rejected the idea: Michael Kalk, the team's senior vice president, said the population surrounding downtown is roughly half of the population. Possible sites in north St. Petersburg could draw in larger attendances.

Tampa Bay Rays say waterfront stadium is off table, downtown site questionable 05/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 28, 2011 1:53pm]
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