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Could a dream location finally be on the table for a Rays stadium?

John Romano | St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch has cracked open the door to repurposing the Albert Whitted Airport waterfront site for different uses.
The Rays have been looking for a new place to hang their gloves ever since a proposed waterfront stadium in downtown St. Pete went down in flames in 2008. New St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch isn't talking specifics, but he could be working on an interesting plan.
The Rays have been looking for a new place to hang their gloves ever since a proposed waterfront stadium in downtown St. Pete went down in flames in 2008. New St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch isn't talking specifics, but he could be working on an interesting plan. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 5

ST. PETERSBURG — For the longest time, they have pursued second choices and consolation prizes.

Every time the Rays came up with a preferred location for a potential stadium, they were told the land was unavailable for one reason or another. Owner Stu Sternberg once prefaced a list of his five favorite sites by explaining that each one was deemed untouchable by the powers that be.

But what if that’s no longer true?

What if enough time has passed, enough politicians have cycled through City Hall, enough new voters have moved into nearby neighborhoods that a once-forbidden site is available for discussion in 2022?

What if all the frustration of the past decade turned out to be a necessary prelude to the perfect site finally becoming politically viable?

Of course, this might just be fantasy. A longshot that will join the doomed ideas of the past. There is a decent chance it won’t even get past the whisper stage.

But what if the Albert Whitted Airport site really is in play?

On that list of dream sites that Sternberg talked about in 2017, Albert Whitted was near the top, probably behind only the Heights development off the Hillsborough River as a favorite. (The former Tampa Tribune building in downtown Tampa, the Jefferson High site off Westshore Boulevard and Al Lang Stadium were Sternberg’s other three choices.)

Albert Whitted is more than 100 acres of waterfront property that would rival San Francisco’s Oracle Park as the most picturesque plot of land in Major League Baseball.

And now, it seems, new St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch is open to the possibility of repurposing that land. On Jan. 27, Welch announced via Twitter that he has asked city staff to study economic and community impacts to “identify the best use for the site.”

Less than a week later, Welch met with Rays executives at City Hall. Neither side would comment about the meeting, but Welch apparently wanted to know if the team would seriously consider remaining in St. Pete if the city came up with a viable plan.

So, is Albert Whitted part of that scenario?

It wouldn’t be the first time a St. Pete mayor has looked longingly at that parcel of land. It wouldn’t be the second, third or fourth time, either.

You can go back nearly a century and find politicians and civic leaders questioning the wisdom of a small, private airport on such valuable property. Charles Harvey told the St. Pete City Council in 1935 that his family never intended for an airport to be built there when they deeded the land to the city, and he briefly threatened a lawsuit if the airport wasn’t moved.

In the 1940s, the St. Petersburg Times editorial board called the airport a “glorified garage and small training field” and advocated closing it down. In 1958, the St. Pete city manager recommended closing the airport and, in the 1970s and ‘80s, there were separate proposals to shut down one of the two runways to make room for USF expansion. As recently as the 2000s, former mayor Rick Baker tried shutting down a runway and Rick Kriseman suggested an airport was not the best use of the land.

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So how has the airport survived all of these slights and takeover attempts?

With unwavering public support that, on the surface, seems hard to explain. Polls throughout the years have shown voters always in favor of keeping the airport, even though only a fraction of residents have ever used the private facility. When a referendum in 2003 proposed the airport be shut down in favor of a public park, voters overwhelmingly — by a 78-22 margin — opted to keep Albert Whitted open.

Five years after that, the Rays proposed a referendum to build a new ballpark on the Al Lang Stadium site but ended the campaign prematurely because of public sentiment against waterfront changes.

Case closed, right?

Not necessarily. Only about 35,000 residents participated in the 2003 referendum, and St. Pete now has nearly 185,000 registered voters.

The city has changed and, inevitably, so has the populace. If the mayor has a blockbuster plan that ties in the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site along with Al Lang and Albert Whitted to include a stadium, affordable housing, green land and a business park, that could have widespread appeal to a new generation of voters.

Neither the mayor nor the City Council can unilaterally shut down Albert Whitted, but a new referendum could open the door to changes at that site.

“I don’t think there’s significant appetite in the community to do that,” said St. Pete City Council member Ed Montanari, who was the chairman of an Albert Whitted task force in 2004. “I think it would be a longshot to close the airport for multiple reasons, including the (city) charter and financing issues.”

Those financing issues could be an even larger hurdle to overcome. The airport has received millions of dollars in federal grants that would potentially need to be repaid if it was closed down.

The Federal Aviation Administration would also likely need to sign off on the plan, and the FAA has been a supporter of the airport in the past.

And all of that would need to happen before figuring out how much public money would be needed for a stadium that would likely exceed $1 billion in cost.

So, yes, it’s probably a longshot.

On the other hand, there’s a reason that Albert Whitted has looked like catnip to mayor after mayor. It occupies some of the city’s prime real estate, and yet produces little economic benefit. And, unlike the Pier, for instance, it’s not used by a large number of residents.

“The fact that we’ve spent all of that grant money and got virtually no increase in usage does not paint a very good picture at the airport,” said former City Council and airport task force member Karl Nurse. “I’m not sure anyone would argue that an airport is the highest priority and best use of that land unless you own a Piper Cub (plane).”

Does that mean a baseball stadium would better serve residents? That’s no guarantee, either. Particularly with the price tag involved.

But the mayor wants to have a conversation about keeping the Rays. He wants to have a conversation about economic stimulators around Tropicana Field. And he wants a conversation about getting the most out of prime waterfront property.

Those sound like conversations worth having.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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