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Ownership group seeks more money

Tampa Bay's 15-year push for a major-league baseball franchise has taken a new and uncertain turn as St. Petersburg officials and the local ownership group focus on a late-innings search for more investors. Several area investors have been contacted in recent days and weeks in an effort to add local names to the ownership group, and to reduce the group's debt level.

Some, including some of the area's more prominent business people, said Thursday they were considering the investment. But others said they turned the ownership group down.

A group of five large Florida banks is watching the situation. The banks are ready to lend the group up to $40-million but are waiting to see whether it will need that much.

The group, Sunshine State Baseball Associates Ltd., is taking advantage of a delay in the National League's expansion process. Baseball owners were scheduled to choose two National League expansion cities from among six competing areas next Wednesday, but announced Wednesday they would delay the decision until sometime before Sept. 30.

Before the delay, it was reported that South Florida and Denver were the expansion committee's leading choices and that Tampa Bay trailed closely, in part because its ownership group was borrowing more than groups in the other two leading cities.

Previously, the National League had said the competing ownership groups could finance 40 percent of the $95-million expansion fee with loans. The rest would have to be owned outright by the investors, the league said.

The leaders of the Tampa Bay group now say it is clear that guide line has changed.

"I think yesterday's announcement focused a lot of people's attention on what is evidently new criteria baseball would like to see met," said Stephen Porter, managing general partner of Sunshine Baseball. "In light of the criteria and the focused attention it has gotten, we will meet in the next few days with lots of people. We'll see if we can change the mix of our financial structure in a manner to make it more pleasing to baseball."

Porter, a lawyer who lives and works in Washington, D.C., said the group would try to add local investors, thus reducing its level of debt. But he added: "If I could have 100 percent equity and no debt at all I would be personally happy and delighted. But I don't know that that's realistic."

Baseball officials have said that the debt levels of prospective franchises should be as low as possible to reduce chances of financial problems.

Porter has refused to discuss the details of the group's financial package or the roles of individual investors.

He said millionaire brothers Sidney and Allen Kohl have made a significant investment, but would not comment when asked if they had the largest investment in the group, as Sidney Kohl had said in the past.

"On Day One, baseball had not announced what its price was," Porter explained. "At the time, the Kohls did not specify their investment, but it was a significant amount.

"Now there is a much different economic climate. And since then baseball has announced its price was $95-million and the Kohls set a limit. I would describe it as a considerable sum."

Interviews Thursday with a sampling of area business people showed that the ownership group has been busy.

William R. Hough, president of William R. Hough & Co., a St. Petersburg municipal bond firm, said he has agreed to be one of the investors and is helping the ownership group raise additional money.

"We will be able to secure some additional investors," he said. However, he said, "it's too early to make any conclusions" about the ultimate success of the fund-raising effort.

He would not reveal the size of his commitment. He also said it is not clear whether the investment will be made by the firm or by him personally.

Cleveland businessman A. Reynolds Morse, original donor and president of the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, said he was approached last week by Hough to invest $500,000 in the team as a limited partner. Morse declined, saying he knew nothing about baseball, had never seen a game, and if he were going to give away half a million dollars it would be to the Dali Museum or the Denver Museum of Natural History. He sits on the Denver museum's board.

John M. Galbraith, who heads the Templeton mutual funds' St. Petersburg operation, said he was told Thursday that a deal is being put together in which he would be asked to participate.

"They gave me no details," he said. "I was just put on notice that I would get another phone call."

Dr. Terry F. Tanner started Concept Inc. in 1963 with a $40,000 investment. When Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. acquired Largo-based Concept last year, Tanner swapped his interest for millions worth of the health care giant's stock.

But Tanner, who was contacted recently by the group, said he would just as soon "keep his eggs in one basket I'm not that interested in baseball, and I like to invest in things I know about."

Florida Progress Corp., the parent of St. Petersburg-based Florida Power, expressed an ownership interest early on in the city's baseball quest, but is no longer on the list, said company spokesman William C. Johnson.

Jack B. Critchfield, chairman, president and chief executive, said the return on the investment was too far in the future to suit the company's stockholders.

At Communications Equity Associates Inc., Tom Cardy, vice president of operations, said company officials have talked "on and off" about becoming investors. They were contacted about two weeks ago. He would not comment on whether they are going to invest.

He said the contact was "low-key" and came from SunTrust Banks Inc. in Atlanta.

Alfred S. Austin, a Tampa developer, said he was contacted within the last month and turned it down.

"I like sports, I might get season tickets or a box," he said. But he said he decided against an investment in part because it would be a limited partnership. "I prefer to invest in things I can control," he said.

Andrew Barnes, editor, president and chief executive of the St. Petersburg Times said the Times Publishing Co. had been asked indirectly to invest. Barnes said he dismissed the offer as "a bad idea" because it would conflict with the newspaper's job of reporting news about the franchise.

_ Times staff writers Bernice Stengle, Helen Huntley, Alan Goldstein, Robert Trigaux and Kim Norris contributed to this report.