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Group says Rays should consider moving from downtown

CLEARWATER — The Tampa Bay Rays should get a new stadium — likely one without a downtown St. Petersburg address, a group studying ballpark options found Thursday.

The downtown — where Tropicana Field sits and where the Rays initially sought a ballpark — is less than ideal because there are fewer potential ticketholders within 30 minutes of the ballpark. That's the same problem for another potential site, near the Fairgrounds in Tampa, according to initial findings by A Baseball Community.

ABC says both places are "at a significant demographic disadvantage, and would not appear to be good choices, unless the venue and surrounding development were iconic in nature to offset location-related weakness."

That leaves mid-Pinellas County and Tampa's downtown and West Shore areas, which have potential to attract higher attendance and a chance to grow as the region does, ABC members concluded.

The early conclusions still could change, but they pose bad news for supporters of keeping baseball in downtown St. Petersburg. Mindful of the touchy subject, ABC chairman Jeff Lyash said the findings don't rule out the locations because other variables such as the availability of land factor into decisions.

Group members avoided making recommendations about a new location or even whether it should be urban or suburban. But their report calls it no longer a question of "if, but when."

They also made it clear, without specifics, that the public should shoulder much of the $450 million to $550 million cost for a stadium that they say ought to have a retractable roof or something similarly innovative.

An initial finding suggested the Rays' owners should be expected to pay 20 to 30 percent of the cost, with the public picking up the rest of the tab — similar to most other projects. Each year, the draft said, taxpayers should be prepared to pay $20 million to $30 million — well above the $12 million annual cost of the Trop. And local, state and federal funding could be required — even action by the Legislature if a new financial source is needed.

The Rays won't pay the full cost, Lyash said, adding, "that's never going to happen."

Fearful of the public static those figures could generate, the group haggled over using them. Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt said the comparison would create an unfair perception of costs because the annual costs were decades apart on a 30- or 40-year bond issue. And the actual team share could vary.

Board member Craig Sher said ABC needs to get more information to determine how "economically feasible" a new stadium is. That means showing how the Rays would benefit in ticket sales or how staying in the Trop would harm the franchise.

Yet it's increasingly clear that keeping the Trop is out. Lyash sees no chance the Rays will play by the end of their lease in 2027, though a new stadium couldn't open before 2014, he said. Kalt compared Tropicana Field to a 1970s mall, structurally sound but outdated.

ABC plans to meet Sept. 11 to reconsider the findings and begin crafting recommendations for elected officials and the public to review this year or early next year.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Group says Rays should consider moving from downtown 08/20/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 20, 2009 10:54pm]
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