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Rays, city to begin work on Dome lease

The shouting and euphoria about baseball's expansion to Tampa Bay have subsided. Now the Devil Rays need a home.

Although the ThunderDome was built to lure Major League Baseball, Vince Naimoli's baseball ownership group and the city of St. Petersburg still must negotiate the terms of the team's takeover of the stadium.

Representatives from the ownership group and the city say they will begin negotiations this week.

How long those talks take is anybody's guess, but St. Petersburg Mayor David J. Fischer predicts an agreement within the next month or two.

"I think this is going to happen pretty quickly," said Fischer.

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"It's not like we're going to wait three years to do this," Fischer said, a reference to the fact that the Rays are not scheduled to take the field until April 1998. "Baseball wants this to happen pretty quickly. I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't have an agreement within the next 30 to 60 days."

Even if a lease agreementis reached soon, don't look for the city to give up the Dome's operation much before the Rays begin to play.

The fact is, the Dome loses money hand over fist.

"We'd like them to take over the Dome today, but they may not want to do that, and I wouldn't blame them," Fischer said. "It's been pretty well established that if you were to shut down the Dome for a year, you'd save somewhere in the $900,000 range."

Since that's roughly half of the subsidy the city pays just to manage and operate the stadium, couldn't St. Petersburg actually save a lot of money just by turning out the lights, locking up the ticket office and waiting three years?

"Well, even with the subsidy, the Dome does provide a centerpiece for the city," Fischer said. "We've had some really good events out there. There's no question, it would be a poor move to shut it down for three years and wait for baseball."

John Higgins, representing the Naimoli group in the negotiations, said he boned up on stadium lease agreements last week during the baseball ownership meetings in Palm Beach even as Naimoli was sweating through a series of tense meetings with the other owners.

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"I brought a bundle of work with me," Higgins recalled, "and one of the things I started to look at was the lease."

"The lease" is the 1992 agreement with the city when it appeared Naimoli had the San Francisco Giants well in hand for relocation to Tampa Bay.

Major League Baseball killed the relocation deal, but the stadium lease document remains a starting point for the upcoming negotiations with the Devil Rays. Like many modern stadium agreements with major-league teams, St. Petersburg's makes it clear that the city will continue to shoulder most of the financial burden by continuing to be responsible for the Dome's construction costs.

Those costs were met with bond financing, which aren't scheduled to be repaid until the year 2016. By then, the city will have paid out almost $300-million in principal and interest payments.

If the terms of the 1992 agreement hold, Naimoli's group will be responsible for maintaining the Dome, the so-called operations and maintenance costs, as well as a fair amount of the expensive upgrades and renovations, called capital costs.

Today, St. Petersburg's budget predicts the city will need $8.6-million for the Dome to function properly. Most of that money _ $6.4-million _ is needed to pay off the construction bonds, the cost the city has already said it will continue to underwrite.

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Fischer predicted the city could shed as much as half of the Dome's total costs if the main provisions of the 1992 agreement are met. But for Fischer's numbers to work under the terms of the 1992 lease, the Dome would have to attract at least 4-million people annually. A pennant race and a string of hot rock 'n roll dates might be needed to make that happen.

First, Naimoli's group would take over the daily operating costs, just as the 1992 lease contemplates. That's worth, roughly, $2-million annually, or about a quarter of the city's annual costs.

Second, Naimoli and the city would split the big-ticket projects. That might be a break-even proposition, since it depends on how many big maintenance and renovation projects are undertaken.

Third, a $2-million annual subsidy now being sought from the state also would be a wash, since that money would be used to pay for necessary stadium improvements such as dugouts, scoreboards, clubhouses and playing field.

This week, the City Council has been asked to approve a resolution seeking the state tax revenues. State law says that local communities can ask for the money if they can show that a new major league sports franchise contributes to the public's welfare by creating jobs, improving the economy and widening the tax base.

Fourth, the city would get 50 cents for every visitor to the Dome, whether for baseball, a rock concert, a religious gathering or a flower show. Again, that's found in the old lease.

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But for the city to use that money to make serious inroads into the remaining $6-million dollar annual costs _ for the bond repayments _ the Dome would have to draw steadily from all events at least 4-million people a year.

At that point, Fischer's goal of cutting the stadium's $8.6-million in yearly costs in half might be possible.

It could happen, especially in the first year or two, when long-suffering Central Florida residents would be expected to flock to the Dome to see a team, any team, play baseball.

Improbably, it may well be how everything else besides baseball does in the Dome that determines whether St. Petersburg is able to find relief from the facility's costs, which represents about $36 worth of tax burden for every resident in the city.

The fact is, few baseball teams draw 4-million visitors a year. The Florida Marlins, for example, drew about 3-million fans their first year, a good draw, and attendance has been slowly declining since.

The shouting and euphoria about baseball's expansion to Tampa Bay have subsided. Now the Devil Rays need a home.

Although the ThunderDome was built to lure Major League Baseball, Vince Naimoli's baseball ownership group and the city of St. Petersburg still must negotiate the terms of the team's takeover of the stadium.

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