The St. Petersburg City Council should take the long view this week as it considers beginning the process to schedule a November referendum on a proposed waterfront baseball stadium. In baseball terms, this is not the bottom of the ninth. These are the early innings of a public discussion, and council members should initiate the referendum procedures and let the game play out this summer before making a final decision.
Look how the Tampa Bay Rays' proposal has evolved since it was unveiled in November. The financing ideas for the $450-million stadium have improved and are likely to continue to be refined to the public's benefit. St. Petersburg has started negotiations with two viable developers about transforming Tropicana Field and its acres of parking lots into a visionary neighborhood of retail, residential and office space. The city, the Rays and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce's task force are brainstorming about parking and traffic issues a new stadium would create. These are among the indications that public and private discussions are progressing well beyond slogans and artist renderings, and they should be allowed to continue.
Not starting the process Thursday to schedule the voter referendum would prematurely kill a project with enormous potential and deny St. Petersburg voters a chance to be heard. A St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll shows 60 percent of St. Petersburg voters want a referendum. While the poll also shows strong opposition at the moment to the proposal, that could change between now and August as the proposal evolves and comes into sharper focus.
At this point, nobody knows enough to come to an informed decision about the ultimate fate of this plan. The way to reach a thoughtful conclusion is to keep moving and get clearer answers on critical issues. Among them:
Financing. The Rays' offer to invest $150-million in a new stadium should not be lightly dismissed. The team's latest plan also calls for developers to pay at least $70-million for the Trop site, which would pay off the remaining debt on the dome. Payments of $11-million a year in city sales taxes and county resort taxes earmarked for Tropicana Field now would be extended to the new stadium. That's another $175-million. Some $55-million would come from parking revenue generated by the ballpark.
The general direction holds promise. It calls for no tax increases or additional tax revenue, and it pays off the debt on the dome. But the financing is going to have to get better to have a chance with voters, who consider the cost to taxpayers the major concern. The Pinellas County Commission is skeptical about extending the 1 percent tax on hotel rooms, and it is unclear how much developers will pay for the Trop site. All of these issues have to be negotiated, and the numbers have to get firmer.
Parking. The Rays do not appreciate the depth of the concerns about parking at City Hall and among city voters. More than 8 in 10 voters believe there is not adequate parking to support a new waterfront stadium. It is not yet clear whether the Rays' plan to lease parking spaces from the city on game nights would leave enough for those driving downtown for other activities. It is hard to imagine that parking issues cannot be resolved, but much work is left to be done.
Environment. An exchange of letters between the state Department of Environmental Protection and the city about contamination on the Tropicana site raise concerns about the extent of the problem and liability if the area is redeveloped.
This is a difficult time to pitch a new stadium and significant redevelopment, regardless of their merits. Economic pressures, from the depressed real estate market to the high price of gasoline, are being felt by voters anxious about their personal finances. State and local governments, including Pinellas County and St. Petersburg, are cutting spending. Public-private partnerships that might have been quickly embraced in another environment are understandably viewed more skeptically now. The Rays have to be realistic about the economic and political realities.
Yet the proposal for a new stadium and redevelopment represents an opportunity that deserves to be fully explored. There are questions to be answered and alternatives to be considered. That takes time, and the St. Petersburg City Council has until August to make a final decision on the referendum. It should keep discussions moving this week by allowing the referendum process to go forward.