Rays to play on the bay?

11/12/07 Mitch E. Perry
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On Friday night, Matt Silverman, president of the Tampa Bay Rays, confirmed a rumor that the Rays have developed a plan to build a $450-million downtown stadium off the waterfront in St. Pete, on the site of where Al Lang field now resides.

That was virtually all Silverman said. It was obvious the St. Petersburg Times, who reported on the story earlier in the day, had scooped the Rays, who were not yet prepared to discuss details. They say they will hold a full fledged news conference in the coming weeks to discuss the proposal.

But reports indicate the Rays ownership would spend a third of the cost, or $150-million. The Rays hope to get the Legislature to approve $60 million in state sales tax rebates, the rest would come from selling the Rays' current home, Tropicana Field and parking lot land. The Times reports that there are grand plans for mixed use development there.

Neil DeMause is an author on stadium issues, and co-author of the book, Field of Schemes. He says that the Rays are in essence asking to develop two publicly owned parcels and keeping the revenues. He says its another case of teams asking for development rights instead of cash.

DeMause says a similar proposal has been floated by Lou Wolff, owner of the Oakland Athletics. DeMause is trying to get a new park in the San Francisco Bay area suburb of Fremont.

There are a number of questions that the Rays can answer about the project – whenver they they’re ready to discuss it.

But a critical part of the package is the $60-million the Rays would get in a sales tax rebate. The Florida Marlins baseball team has been looking for a similar deal for several years in the Legislature, and has lost every time out, including this spring when the House approved a deal but the state Senate rejected it.

And that was before the state learned that it had a deficit. USF-St. Petersburg Political Science Professor Daryl Paulson said this will be a hard sell.

St. Petersburg residents will have a chance to give their support or disapproval to the project. The City Charter requires voter approval of any deal involving a long-term lease of city-owned waterfront property.

Currently, the Rays have a lease with St. Petersburg at Tropicana Field that lasts another 20 years. The team also still owes $100-million on it.

Paulson says there’s no guarantee that a majority of local residents would vote to allow the proposal as it currently reads.

There are a number of other questions that the leaked proposal begs to have answered, such as: What about parking? And what about the fact that only some seating areas would have air-conditioning, and the field would be covered not by a retractable dome, but a canopy?

Field of Schemes author Neil DeMause says adding a retractable dome would make the $450-million plan a lot more expensive. And he says the smaller planned capacity of the waterfront park – which would be 10,000 seats smaller than Tropicana Field, is something that makes sense for teams like the Rays.

While details of the new park are still sketchy, there have been wildly divergent opinions expressed on certain St. Petersburg Internet blogs; the lack of air conditioning and cover for the players on the field seem to be generating the most vociferous comments.

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