If Tropicana Field didn't exist and some adventurer wanted to build a $550 million baseball stadium from scratch, then Tampa would look mighty attractive.
People can drive quickly to downtown Tampa or to the West Shore area. And Tampa's business base could support luxury suites, season tickets and corporate sponsorships.
That's what the ABC Coalition — a group exploring a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays — discovered when it studied drive times, business activity and other demographics.
But a separate coalition report on finances shows that Pinellas County is better positioned to produce public money for a new stadium than Hillsborough is.
Taken together, the two coalition reports dovetail toward one likely location: Pinellas County's Gateway area.
The Gateway is closer to the metropolitan center than Tropicana Field is, and has a growing business presence.
The Gateway lies within the city of St. Petersburg, and in seven years, money now committed to the Trop could roll over for construction.
And unlike any Hillsborough location, a stadium in mid Pinellas runs no risk of renewing old cross-bay baseball wars that once split a community.
"The Gateway makes sense — more people coming from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco all going to games," says Pinellas County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris. "The Rays are an integral part of the business community and good for tourism."
The Rays' agreement with the city of St. Petersburg calls for them to play at the Trop until 2027.
Though not explicitly threatening to leave, the Rays say they have no long-term future there.
Now one of baseball's oldest venues, the Trop lacks the amenities of modern stadiums. Attendance, though growing steadily, ranks 23rd of 30 major league teams.
Planning for a new stadium should begin as soon as the economy improves, ABC Coalition members say, because hammering out details and finishing construction could take six to 10 years. Without progress, they say, the Rays' marriage with St. Petersburg will sour well before 2027.
To evaluate possible locations, the coalition asked the University of South Florida to study five general areas: the Trop, Gateway, West Shore, downtown Tampa and the state fairgrounds.
Three stood out:
Downtown Tampa: By 2013, 1.8 million people will live within a 30-minute drive of the area, according to the USF study. Only 1.2 million people will live that close to the Trop.
Attendance at weekday games is particularly sensitive to drive times, says Craig Sher, chairman of the Sembler Co. and an ABC Coalition board member.
"You may go directly from work to the game," he says. "Or maybe you have to go home first to walk the dog and feed the kids."
Business presence is also important. In most major league markets, businesses buy two-thirds of the season tickets. The Rays won't release specific figures, but say businesses buy only one-third of their season tickets.
Within a 30-minute drive, downtown Tampa has 16,100 businesses that employ at least 10 people. The Trop has 12,577.
West shore and Gateway: Population at both ends of the Howard Frankland is slightly lower than for downtown Tampa, the USF study showed.
But West Shore and Gateway lead the area in large businesses within a 30-minute drive — with 17,707 and 16,274 respectively.
The coalition also looked at land around the state fairgrounds as a possible location. Its population compares well 20 years from now as the Tampa Bay area spreads east.
But east Hillsborough is a bedroom community. Of all five locations, it has the fewest large employers.
"The conclusion is that there are three relatively equal" locations, says Sher. "You are looking at (Gateway), West Shore and downtown Tampa."
The new Florida Marlins stadium will be built on the old Orange Bowl site, miles from the metropolitan center in a lower-class neighborhood with lousy parking prospects.
That's where Miami-Dade County officials wanted it, and they held the purse strings.
In this market, public finance works more favorably in Pinellas than in Hillsborough.
Since St. Petersburg built the Trop 25 years ago, Hillsborough County has committed 2 cents of its 5-cents-per-dollar hotel tax to finance Raymond James Stadium, Steinbrenner Field and the St. Petersburg Times Forum. Raymond James is also underwritten by most of a half-cent sales tax.
Those funds are largely tied up through 2035.
Hillsborough might explore the Rays moving to Tampa if the area is at risk of losing them to another city, County Commissioner Ken Hagan says.
"However, without question, this is the worst possible time to be discussing any public financing for the stadium."
In Pinellas, bonds to build the Trop are largely backed by $6 million a year in city taxes plus a 1 percent county hotel tax.
Those bonds will be paid off in seven years.
If renewed, they could generate $150 million to $160 million toward construction, the coalition report indicates.
Nobody wants to build a stadium during the recession. But if real estate development rebounds, then sale of the Trop's 85 acres might generate another $40 million to $60 million.
Taken together, those existing sources could give Pinellas a $200 million head start toward a new stadium.
Rivalries at bay
Years ago, St. Petersburg and Tampa vied bitterly for a baseball team.
These days, most Hillsborough leaders stress regional cooperation on matters like business development and mass transit, while carefully avoiding any hint that they would woo the Rays against St. Petersburg's will.
But former Mayor Dick Greco suggests that Hillsborough interests eventually might step to the plate even without St. Petersburg's consent.
"If it comes to the fact that the team says, 'We are going to move one way or another,' everybody needs to work together to make St. Petersburg whole," Greco says. "But a decision is going to have to be made to solve this. It's a team that belongs to the whole area, and we've got to work together to keep the team."
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker stiffens at such talk. The Trop agreement calls for an injunction if the Rays try to leave unilaterally.
"The future of baseball is in St. Petersburg," Baker says. "We've come to a kind of equilibrium in the Bay area. The Bucs are in Tampa, and baseball is over here. Trying to change locations in baseball would set off conflict that is just unnecessary."
Baker also questioned the 30-minute drive times in the coalition's report. Driving from Gateway to the Trop takes only 10 minutes, he says.
"Historically, there has been a psychological barrier just crossing the bridge, but I think we've made a lot of progress on that," Baker says. "You come downtown on a Friday and Saturday night, and a large percentage of people are from Tampa."
No stadium will be built without Rays money and the team shows no love for rebuilding at the Trop, where construction could disrupt parking and attendance.
What locations do they like?
"It is way premature" to discuss that or how much money the team might be willing to kick in, says senior vice president Michael Kalt.
"We need to look at all the data that comes in from ABC" plus more market information, he says. "Depending on the economic calculus, we might be willing to put in more or less."
The baseball coalition, which has no legal authority, hopes to present its final recommendations to public officials and the community within a few months.
Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report.