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Time's short; so is money

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Tampa Bay baseball backers are operating with a "great sense of urgency" to improve their ownership group in what is apparently a race against time. Managing general partner Stephen Porter said his group would contact potential additional investors through the weekend.

"We are proceeding on the basis as if there is a very limited period of time," Porter said Friday afternoon. His group is contacting as many potential investors as possible in hopes of adding to its equity base and reducing debt, but "We're not out on the street corner with a tin cup."

St. Petersburg City Council member Robert Stewart, the city's designated representative to baseball, said the pace of activity is feverish.

"I know there's a lot of scurrying going on. We're trying to identify people," he said. "If there's a candidate out there, that person ought to be spoken to today and visited tomorrow."

Stewart said supporters are spending "every waking hour" on the project, hoping to land a financial "heavy hitter" or multimillionaire, a task made more difficult by current economic conditions.

The need for additional cash investors is a result of the reduced roles of Sidney and Allen Kohl, the original leading investors, Stewart said. The millionaire brothers "have decided to dramatically reduce their participation," Stewart said. "I think that's close to what happened."

Porter has declined comment on the size of the Kohls' investment.

Overall, Stewart said, "There's a great sense of urgency."

That may be because the window created Wednesday when the National League indefinitely postponed its expansion vote actually could close in a few days.

The National League expansion committee essentially has completed its work and likely will present a recommendation on its top two choices to major-league owners next Wednesday at quarterly meetings in California, chairman Douglas Danforth said.

It has been widely reported, but not publicly confirmed, the committee favors South Florida and Denver, with Tampa Bay running a close third.

Even if the Tampa Bay group does something to improve its standing, it was unclear, based on interviews with baseball officials, whether NL expansion officials will consider the changes in making their recommendation.

Expansion committee member Bill Giles said he was not aware of any process to allow ownership groups to submit new information. NL spokeswoman Katy Feeney said new data can be submitted until the entire process is finalized, "but I wouldn't wait a whole long time."

The official vote is not expected until at least next month, and the owners are not bound to follow the recommendation, although commissioner Fay Vincent said he expects they will.

A second baseball panel, the joint-league ownership committee, which must approve the prospective new owners, is just beginning its process. But its chairman, St. Louis Cardinals president Fred Kuhlmann, said once the expansion committee makes a recommendation, "our job is academic."

He seemed puzzled by the Tampa Bay group's latest actions to increase its equity and reduce the amount it plans to borrow to finance the $95-million expansion fee.

"I don't understand. Everyone's known about this. I don't understand the last-minute changes. I don't understand the sudden surge," Kuhlmann said Friday.

Asked if new information could help the group, he said: "Whether or not it will be relevant depends on whether St. Pete is recommended."

Where does this leave Tampa Bay?

Porter said Friday he still felt his group could prevail.

"Of course. If I thought we couldn't win, I wouldn't be working on it," Porter said. "Until I'm told we've lost, I'll go under the assumption we can win."

Stewart painted a more dire picture.

"We were about to strike out," he said. "What has happened is the game has been allowed to go into extra innings. That gives us a chance to win it _ in dramatic fashion."

Stewart said the search for new investors was taking place on two levels. Some were being asked to invest amounts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then there were "the really big hitters, in the millions," he said.

The big investors will matter more, he said.

"I think that's going to make it or break it," Stewart said.

The city and the ownership group "have identified and are talking with people who are heavy enough to solve the problem," Stewart said. But the recession and the waning time before baseball's decision will make that difficult, he said.

Tampa Bay must "find somebody who can put $40-million in cash on the table in the next 10 days," he said. "That's the kind of individual we need, and there aren't many of them."

He added if a local investor can't be found, the search could extend outside the area or the state as well. Stewart said it appears it will be more important for the ownership group to find major investors than to make sure they are local.

City officials and local business and political leaders have been working on the recruiting process.

State Rep. Jeff Huenink, R-St. Petersburg, said he had been asked several months ago to invest but declined because he planned to be involved in legislation involving money for the Florida Suncoast Dome.

It was believed Home Shopping Network chairman and chief executive Roy M. Speer was one of the business people being approached this week.

Abraham D. Gosman, a wealthy Palm Beach investor who owns medical and health-care properties around the country and was an investor in a rival Tampa Bay group, would not comment Friday on whether he has been asked to join the Porter group.

Other people who have been contacted include:

The St. Petersburg law firm of Baynard Harrell Mascara Ostow & Ulrich. Partner Roy G. Harrell Jr. said Friday: "I have received inquiries" but didn't have enough information yet to respond.

Tech Data Corp. chairman Steven A. Raymund, who said he received a letter within the past two weeks asking for about $1-million. Clearwater-based Tech Data is a major distributor of computer equipment.

"I thought if they were going to ask for that much, they'd at least call or send it Federal Express," said Raymund, who tossed the letter. "But I'm not a big fan. And I like investments that are reasonably liquid."

Jim Kimbrough, president of SunBank and Trust Co. in Hernando and Citrus counties, had been asked recently to invest several million dollars.

"It was enticing, but I just had some other investments I was involved with at the time," he said.

Despite recent cross-bay cooperation, Tampa city government was not part of the search for investors.

"Right now, we have our hands full trying to get out of a $15-million budget deficit," said John Dunn, spokesman for Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. "Our creative efforts are going toward solving that problem, not getting a baseball team."

_ Staff writers Alan Goldstein and Robert Keefe contributed to this report.