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Monday, Sep 22, 2014
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Downtown stadium group tries to raise profile

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TAMPA — In the six-year Tampa Bay Rays stadium drama, perhaps no one has kept a lower profile than a small advocacy group called BuilditDowntownTampa.

Staffed by a low-level government aide who is virtually unknown locally, since 2009 it has collected pro-stadium petitions from Rays fans and scouted for potential stadium sites around downtown Tampa.

But no one knows what to make of it. Does BuilditDowntownTampa have money behind it, or is it just a young, prematurely balding guy with a laptop who hangs out at an Ybor City coffee shop?

Now, the group is trying to raise its stature, raise money and tighten its focus. Its new roles could be running a marketing campaign to support a new ballpark. It’s not pushing for a stadium tax, but admits it might be necessary, its leaders say.

Executive Director Ryan Neubauer said former Devil Rays slugger Fred McGriff has agreed to serve as the group’s ceremonial spokesman, but the Tribune could not reach McGriff to confirm that.

“There’s going to need to be an entity that takes on the brunt of financing a stadium and all the political pain that comes with that,” said Henry Gonzalez, a local banker who is one of the only businesspeople known to belong to it.

Neubauer, 34, surfaced in 2009 a year after the Rays nixed their plan to build a new stadium in downtown St. Petersburg. He became the point man for a grass-roots group of Rays fans who thought the team was ill-placed in St. Petersburg and would be better off across the bay.

He set up a website at www.builditdowntowntampa.org and started an online petition drive to move the team to downtown Tampa.

Nothing in his background suggests he’s a heavy-hitter who can influence the stadium issue.

Neubauer once worked for a Milwaukee city alderman and held an office job for a Miami-Dade County public housing agency. Aside from mentions of BuilditDowntownTampa, an Internet search of Neubauer’s name turns up that he once traded in reptiles.

Today, he explains that he dabbled in turtles and other reptiles as a hobby.

During the past four years, Neubauer and his group have occasionally generated small headlines.

For example, his group campaigned for current Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn when he was running for office two years ago, believing Buckhorn was sympathetic to their cause. They also sent Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig a letter last year asking him to intervene in the standoff between St. Petersburg and the Rays over Tropicana Field.

People don’t necessarily write off the group, just in case there’s something to it. The group’s secrecy, and gossip that it is raising money to get options on stadium land, keep people guessing.

Neubauer has declined to name his financial backers — if he has any — for years, but he lets on that he draws an income out of BuilditDowntownTampa’s membership dues.

At its quarterly meetings, a small group of eight to 10 members chat about potential stadium sites and about ways to fund a downtown ballpark. It has spoken with local landowners about good stadium sites, such as Tampa Park Apartments, Channelside and Tampa Heights.

At least a few local government leaders have dropped by, Neubauer said, but only Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan acknowledges doing so. Hagan has led the charge in Hillsborough County to reach out to the Rays.

“I appreciate all their efforts and passion in trying to bring the Rays to downtown Tampa,” Hagan said.

Four years after forming, the group is trying to become a bigger player. It sees itself as a facilitator that could bring together the private sector, the government and the Rays. That’s a role that some people wish a more established group such as the Tampa Bay Partnership could fill, but Neubauer said he doesn’t think the partnership has shown an ability to do it.

Lately, the group has been recruiting prominent businesspeople to serve on its board, asking each for a contribution of up to $10,000 to fund its operations and run pro-stadium marketing efforts.

It’s not clear that it’s succeeding, though. Nick Vojnovic, former president of Beef O’Brady’s who now runs Little Greek restaurants, said he went to a couple BuilditDowntownTampa meetings, but stopped. He would only say that “it wasn’t a good fit.”

Mark House, local head of the big commercial construction firm Beck Group, has attended a few times, too. BuilditDowntownTampa needs money to prove legitimacy, House said, but he’ll probably decline its offer to join its board. He can’t justify a big corporate contribution right now.

“Timing is probably not right, “House said. “And, I probably need to do more research before making a significant investment.”

It’s hard to say whether this mystery group has moved the stadium debate forward. But its chief goal — a downtown ballpark — has gained steam, nonetheless.

Hagan and Mayor Buckhorn are putting together a committee that would meet with the Rays if and when the team comes looking for a new home. Buckhorn has said he favors a downtown Tampa stadium among all possible sites.

“It should be here,” said Gonzalez, a one-time chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. “It never should have been in St. Pete. It always should’ve been here.”

msasso@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7865

Twitter: @msasso

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