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Beach businesses brainstorm on baseball

About 200 beach business owners met Tuesday to find out how they could make some big bucks off the upcoming first season of St. Petersburg's major league Devil Rays.

Vince Naimoli, the Devil Rays' managing general partner, told them there was plenty of business to be done, even a few miles away from the downtown ballpark. Baseball fans are expected to spend about $40-million this season before and after the games.

But it's a little late in the game, Naimoli said, and it's really up to the tourist industry here to step up to the plate.

"The inside of the stadium will be ready" for the Rays' first season, which starts in 146 days, Naimoli said. "The outside, I don't have anything to do with that. There are a lot of wonderful ideas. We're supportive. We just don't have the mechanism" to make businesses' dreams happen.

Cashing in on baseball will be up to the businesses themselves.

The Gulf Beaches of Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce has been trying to get local businesses fired up to take the initiative. Six months ago, the chamber established a baseball committee headed by Indian Shores motel owner David Burr.

Tuesday's luncheon seemed like a Devil Rays pep rally with chicken piccata. An electronic keyboardist played a few rounds of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

John Bowers, executive director of the chamber, hopes that many out-of-town visitors will want to come for a baseball game and stay on the beaches or at least for a seafood dinner and drinks after a game. Baseball could fill in the gap in business during the off-season.

But Naimoli said very few hotels have bought season tickets to arrange package deals for tourists. One survey found that about 140 season tickets had been purchased by about 30 area hotels. There are about 4,000 to 5,000 season tickets left for sale.

"The family that drives down from Georgia to see a game is going to want a package deal," Naimoli said. "Please don't call me in March."

Planning seasonal ticket promotions was among the ideas that the chamber is suggesting to businesses that want to cash in on baseball.

Some hotels at the beaches, such as the Quality Inn and the Tradewinds Resort in St. Pete Beach, have bought blocks of season tickets to offer package deals.

But many small business owners haven't been able to afford season tickets, which start at $810. The chamber is trying to connect small businesses that would be willing to split the cost of tickets, good for 81 home games next year.

In a brochure passed out Tuesday, the chamber also suggests that businesses can:

Establish a shuttle service. Parking downtown is expected to be tough, and visitors may be unfamiliar with the area. Running a shuttle ensures visitors come back to the beaches after the games to spend their money.

Rick Taylor of Ricky T's Bar & Grill in Treasure Island and Carson Guy of Lifestyles Limos in St. Petersburg already have teamed up to start a shuttle service from the island. They plan to run three 23-passenger buses to Tropicana Field and back for $10 a person.

Have baseball information that patrons need. The chamber will be encouraging businesses to have clear instructions to get downtown and back to the beaches, so visitors won't be frustrated. About 10 signs pointing the way to Tropicana Field will be put up on the beaches.

Put an ad in the official Devil Rays program. About 325,000 copies of the book will be distributed throughout the season to fans.

Sell Devil Rays merchandise. The chamber suggests this as a way to attract fans and create excitement about the team.

"The beaches aren't ready yet," said Burr, who rents out eight Sunburst Cottages in Indian Shores.

At the very least, Tampa Bay's Gulf Coast is looking forward to the exposure that a major league team will bring the area nationally.

"The exposure the area is going to get because of the Devil Rays over the long term is what's really significant," said Gregg Nicklaus, general manager of the company that owns the Quality Inn and Best Western Sirata in St. Pete Beach.

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