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Tuesday, Sep 23, 2014

Hill: Trop has helped deliver St. Pete’s dream of a vibrant downtown


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Almost everyone in the Tampa Bay area was hoping for another World Series. I certainly was.

That’s what was intended back when landing a Major League Baseball team was the be-all, end-all in St. Pete.

When the Trop — formerly the Florida Suncoast Dome or the Thunderdome — was built, the squat building with a fiberglass roof that looks like a lopsided mushroom was a big deal.

To people who calculate a city’s worth by such things, having a Major League Baseball team here meant that St. Petersburg was finally on par with Tampa as a big-league city.

Yes, the regional competition goes back that far. Actually, it goes back to when Pinellas County seceded from Hillsborough in 1912.

So, when the Tampa Bay Rays went to the World Series in 2008 — even though the team lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games — it meant that the gamble taken by those St. Pete movers and shakers of nearly 40 years ago had paid off.

The stadium and the team were expected to revive a moribund downtown. Whether it was baseball that created the fertile ground for what downtown has become since the team arrived is open to speculation.

It certainly didn’t hurt.

How desperate was St. Pete for a team?

The city, without a referendum, spent $110 million to build a stadium without any guarantees that Major League Baseball would award an expansion team to St. Pete or that an existing team would move here.

Rick Dodge was the St. Petersburg assistant city manager and a liaison to Major League Baseball back then.

“We didn’t have a city that was dying. We had a city that was in the emergency room in cardiac arrest,” Dodge told a New York Times reporter in 1992 about why the city needed a team.

Plus, baseball was in the city’s fabric, Dodge said.

Hyperbole? Perhaps — though I still remember my father talking about waiting on Mickey Mantle in Moorefield’s Sporting Goods downtown when the Yankees trained here in the spring.

The city’s love affair with baseball dates back to 1914, when it became the spring training home to the St. Louis Browns. Maybe because of that, supporters of bringing a big-league club to town were sure the dome and the team would be hugely successful.

The team is. Not so much the Trop.

One of the problems with the Trop, which opened on the site of the old gas plant in 1990, is that it’s functional, but certainly not inspiring or iconic.

The Rays, awarded to the city in 1995, played its inaugural season in 1998.

The Trop has been the subject of criticism ever since.

What it has going for it is air conditioning and a roof — no sweaty games at the Trop, no rained-out games either.

But even with a magical team often lauded for being one of the best-run in the country, there are often more empty seats than fans at ball games.

And that, more than its Spartan interior, is likely to lead to the Trop’s demise.

It is, according to fans and government officials across the region, in the wrong place for a number of reasons. The neighborhood is bad, it takes too long to get to downtown St. Petersburg, and so forth.

Actually, people said the same thing back in the day. Not about the neighborhood or the traffic, but the proximity to Tampa was an issue then, too.

Why not in Toy Town, the former dump site? Or on land in the Carillon area, close to the Howard Frankland Bridge?

Money.

The city owned the land downtown and agreed to lease it to the Trop for $1 a year for 40 to 50 years.

Plus, there was that dream again: a new downtown.

The future of the Rays in the Tampa Bay area is uncertain, while the Trop seems unlikely to survive. Hopefully, the team ends up somewhere in Pinellas, a little closer to Hillsborough but still on this side of the bridges.

But whenever the changes come, we can already say Major League Baseball has been a success for St. Petersburg.

The stadium, as funky as it is, and the team did what they were intended to do, and that’s build the downtown we have today.

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