The politics of a proposed new baseball stadium in St. Petersburg are racing ahead of the business details, and that's no way to make an informed decision.
An increasingly vocal antistadium group calling itself Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront is pressuring City Council members to accelerate the stadium schedule with the clear intent of killing the project. It is filling a vacuum while the Tampa Bay Rays crunch numbers and city staffers evaluate development plans. Council members ultimately may reasonably conclude the stadium deal is not worth putting before voters in November, but they don't yet have nearly enough information. Neither does the public, and the city's own schedule doesn't anticipate concrete answers about financing or a master developer until next month.
So there is no need to rush to judgment and prematurely write off the Rays' vision. Let's see if the big numbers add up first instead of assuming they won't and killing off ambition with a thousand smaller cuts.
From the start, Tampa Bay Rays owners knew they were facing an uphill struggle with their plan to build a new $450-million open-air stadium at the site of Al Lang Field along the downtown waterfront. They also knew they would have to win the blessing of voters, which is no small feat in a city that still bears the political scars from the fight over Tropicana Field more than two decades ago and is not as desperate to woo developers as it once was.
POWW itself is a reminder of that distant battle, and it appears to be gaining strength during the necessarily tedious process of evaluating which of three bidders might buy and redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site. Advertising for bids and culling through the results takes time, and neither the city nor the Rays can put together a viable plan without knowing the results.
That said, the Rays cannot afford to ignore the antistadium yard signs and the understandable angst of council members. City Council Chairman James Bennett challenged the Rays on Tuesday to put more team money in the project, and it appears that may well be necessary. A more straight-forward financing plan that paid off the Trop, created more property tax revenue from the redevelopment and built the new stadium without any more public money than is being spent on the Trop now would erase a lot of doubts.
That may not be possible. But the sooner the Rays provide a more complete financing plan, the better their chances of success. They may be generating some excitement with Kevin Costner videos and fliers they hand to fans at home games, but they will need a much a broader campaign with much greater detail to convince voters.
Financing is not the only missing ingredient. Voters will want to be assured that any new development on the Tropicana Field site is consistent with community goals, and that sufficient parking is available for a waterfront stadium. Environmental regulators will have to be assured the stadium won't unduly harm the boat basin it will border.
Key steps remain and important voices have yet to enter this debate. A diverse review committee appointed by the Chamber of Commerce, for example, is not expected to release its recommendations until the end of May. Council members need to keep an open mind until all of the facts are on the table — and the Rays need to be mindful that they risk being nitpicked to death on side issues if they don't readdress the central question of financing soon.