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City has Plan B for stadium site

Even as engineers test an old landfill this summer to determine whether it is a good site for a new Philadelphia Phillies stadium, the city is assembling a thick file of information about an alternative location for the baseball complex.

In March, just before elections replaced a majority of the City Commission, the city and the Phillies signed a deal to build a $22.7-million-plus spring training complex. But the pact didn't specify where it would go.

The preferred site is a 37-acre former landfill at the northwest corner of Drew Street and Old Coachman Road. But an alternative has been casually discussed: a shopping center that once housed a Home Depot at 21870 U.S. 19.

The half-vacant site includes land owned by three entities: Home Depot, a partnership controlled by Sembler Enterprises Inc. and Target, which is a candidate to move to a new shopping center that the Sembler Co. plans to build to replace Clearwater Mall.

City officials _ including newly appointed City Manager Bill Horne, Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton and Parks and Recreation Administrator Kevin Dunbar _ agree that the alternative site would be a very visible spot.

In addition, the alternative location would move the stadium away from several neighborhoods that oppose the project, Horne said, and the site lacks the complications of building on a landfill.

But city officials haven't received any formal proposal from the Philadelphia Phillies about the former Home Depot site.

"There's just been some discussion, very casual, about that site, and I just wanted to make sure we were aware of what issues might be with the site," said City Attorney Pam Akin. As a result, during the past three weeks, Akin's office collected a packet of legal documents and property records about the shopping center.

Phillies officials said Friday that they aren't serious about the alternative location at this time. The Phillies' director of Florida operations, John Timberlake, said the shopping center location could be very expensive to buy.

Pinellas County property records show that the shopping center is valued at up to $13-million. The Home Depot and Sembler property alone is valued at $7-million.

By comparison, the land for the preferred site was donated by St. Petersburg College last year.

In past negotiations with the city, Timberlake said, it was clear that neither the Phillies nor the city wanted to chip in any additional funds for the complex.

"I think that we were all feeling that all parties were stretched to where they could go to make it happen," Timberlake said.

Mayor Brian Aungst said he thinks speculation about the former Home Depot location is wishful thinking.

"As far as I know, that site is not affordable at this point in time," Aungst said. "And there are multiple sets of things with ownership, how you could buy it and that kind of stuff. . . . It seems to be pretty impossible to me, or that would be my gut reaction."

For the past few weeks, the landfill site has been undergoing a variety of tests to see whether there are any serious environmental problems there.

Recent tests at the site have detected areas with concentrations of metal objects, which could be anything from underground utility wires to metal drums, according to a draft report released this week.

Six to eight such "targets" will be investigated in August when the Phillies' environmental engineering company digs trenches to see what's inside the landfill, which operated through the 1960s.

In addition, the report stated that about half of the 62 locations tested for methane gas contained a significant amount of the gas, which forms in landfills as garbage decays and can cause explosions.

The results mean that any stadium project built on the landfill would probably have to include a special venting system to prevent gas buildups, said John Stranix, who is the project manager for the Phillies' construction projects.

Officials characterized the results as neither good news nor bad news.

"What's there is what you'd expect to find there," Stranix said.

Karma Killian, an environmental engineer for the city, said the results of the more extensive tests on the site this summer have so far been what she had expected.

"We knew we'd find some anomalies out there to look at," Killian said. "It's kind of like a car that's sputtering a little bit, and until you look under the hood, you don't know if you need a complete overhaul or something minor."

The city will look into the landfill later this summer. Trenches will be dug in August so that workers can inspect the contents of the landfill, as long as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is keeping tabs on efforts at the landfill, approves.

The city is on a schedule to try to verify the future spring training stadium's site by early September.

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