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Bay area officials reassess plans to lure new jobs and industry

It sounds improbable that a region's government and business leaders could pin hard-edged plans to something as blue-sky as a fun day at the ballpark, but they did. New business and shopping areas, broader tax bases, a heightened quality of life and attractive settings to lure new jobs and industries, all those plans are being reassessed today, the day after Tampa Bay missed both shots at a Major League Baseball expansion franchise.

The city of St. Petersburg built the Florida Suncoast Dome in anticipation of the happy day when a baseball franchise would be awarded, but it was clear from the outset more than a decade ago that a baseball team's presence would add luster to governments and businesses all around Tampa Bay.

But for now, at least, the luster is dull.

"That's a terrible disappointment," said Jim Apthorp, chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "The whole bay area has anticipated baseball with great interest, and I think baseball is depriving this population center of the opportunity to express its support by going to games, buying advertising and doing all the other things that communities do."

The region's lost chances were also clear to Clearwater Mayor Rita Garvey. "Economically, the whole area would have been affected, so it's hurting more than just St. Petersburg to not get" a baseball team, she said. "They're going to have to hustle to find another use for the dome."

Hustle, yes, but chances are good that the Suncoast Dome will someday house the baseball team it was built specifically to accommodate, said Hugh Culverhouse, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the National Football League.

Culverhouse called the decision a setback but not a defeat. "This area will receive a major-league baseball team, either by expansion or the move of an existing team."

Culverhouse said he always has heard "lots of interest in having two teams in Florida. I can only assume that they're saving one of the Florida markets for the American League. . . . They cannot ignore . . . this area."

"This area has done everything that Major League Baseball has asked of it," he added, pointing to local groups backing away from the Twins and the Rangers in recent years. "I'm disappointed, but I'm not sure the game is over."

"My gut reaction is we're going to get a baseball team, and I think we're going to get a team in the next two or three years," said St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer. "I think baseball recognizes that we were a strong, strong (expansion) entry, and I think it's just a matter of time before we get an existing team."

Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman said: "It's certainly a disappointment but it's not a defeat." In a prepared statement, she said: "This area has too much going for it. We have the stadium and we have the people who can make things happen. What we need to do now is find an existing team and move on from here."

But Apthorp, at the Tampa Chamber, wondered if attempts to lure existing teams to Tampa Bay would ever pay off. "That was the effort for several years, and baseball always told us not to do it. I think it's very difficult" to move an existing team.

Despite Monday's rejection by Major League Baseball, another new arrival to Tampa Bay said there's no doubt that Tampa Bay is in the big leagues: "We certainly believe that this a major sports market," said Jerry Helper, spokesman for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the new National Hockey League franchise recently awarded to Tampa Bay. "We obviously are disappointed for the Tampa Bay community. We know that the ownership group and the people involved have worked long and hard on this project."

Some said St. Petersburg officials either knew, or should have known, that baseball's rejection was coming. Monday's announcement was a "telegraphed punch," said Tom Oberhofer, a Council of Neighborhood Associations committee chairman. If city officials were surprised by the decision, they weren't doing their jobs, he said. "They had gotten lots of signs. They can't be shocked."

Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion Monday on baseball's decision to stay away from Central Florida. Here's a sampling:

Paul Griffin, executive director of the Committee of 100 in Pasco County, an economic development group: "St. Pete was taken to the cleaners on this deal. They got stiffed. The market's here. They did everything they were supposed to do."

Connie Kone, St. Petersburg vice mayor: "You can't blame people for being dreamers. A lot of people worked hard to get baseball here. I had reservations about building the Dome. I tried to stop it. But that's over and done. Now we've got to pull together and try for an existing team or possibly another sports franchise. It may just take a little longer."

_ Staff writers Alan Goldstein, Robert Trigaux, Steve Liesman, Bernice Stengle, James Harper, Laura Griffin, Alicia Caldwell and Stephen Koff contributed to this report.