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Rays' regional stadium plan may fall victim to cities' rivalry

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 06:27 AM
TAMPA -

Here's Stuart Sternberg's answer to how his Tampa Bay Rays baseball team can find a new stadium site: have a "regional discussion."

Sounds simple in theory, but the history and envy between Tampa and St. Petersburg, and the friction that plays out between rival cities across in the country, indicates that regional cooperation is unlikely to happen.

"When you have two cities of comparable size, you get competition, not cooperation," said Roger Noll, an economics professor at Stanford University, who studies the impact of sports teams and stadiums.

Days after Sternberg called for regional cooperation to find a better location than Tropicana Field to draw fans and generate more revenue, no one has stepped forward to kick off the discussion.

In fact, Hillsborough County politicians backed off any move to steal the Rays while St. Petersburg leaders dug in for a legal battle to keep the team within city limits.

"It will be difficult to start," former St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer said of a regional discussion. "St. Petersburg is not going to start it."

And if St. Petersburg and Pinellas County don't want to take part, chances are the discussion won't happen.

Deep attachment

Pinellas' hard-line stance is understandable. The county and St. Petersburg have prestige and money on the line, plus deep emotional commitment made by politicians and taxpayers.

When Pinellas officials decided in the 1980s to use tax dollars to build Tropicana Field even before a baseball team committed to the area, it was politically risky and contrary to the wishes of many county residents.

"This issue with the Rays is more than just regionalism," said former Pinellas Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd. "It's a matter of a significant investment that's been made between the people of Pinellas County and the city of St. Petersburg."

Todd, who was chairwoman of the commission at that time, was sued along with other board members by groups opposed to building the stadium. The suit was later dropped, but Todd said the emotional investment paid by county residents is still too deep to join a discussion that would move the Rays across the bay.

"I don't blame the owners; they invested a lot of money in their players," Todd said. "But before they do anything, I'd like to see them consider all the other options and what's best for the city and best for Pinellas County."

One city spurs cooperation

There have been precious few precedents in this country of cities reaching an accord to build stadiums and hold onto sports teams.

Regional cooperation works when "there is a core city, then everything else," Noll said.

Denver is a model example because the Mile High City is the largest municipality in a seven-county metro area.

There, taxpayers voted for a sales tax increase across the region to help pay for baseball and football stadiums.

The groundwork for that kind of regional cooperation was established more than 10 years ago, when voters approved regionwide taxes that funneled money for improvements to the area's mass transit system and renovations to Denver's museums and libraries, said Denver businessman and philanthropist Ray Baker.

There have been jealousies among the seven counties in the past, but civic leaders and residents realized that Denver, with its larger infrastructure and coffers, provides amenities enjoyed by everyone across the metropolitan area, Baker said.

"People here appreciate such a thing as a core city," said Baker, chairman of the Denver Metropolitan Major League Baseball District, which oversaw the financing for the Coors Field baseball park, and the Metropolitan Football Stadium District, which secured a site and money for the Denver Broncos' new stadium.

Regionalism could work in the Tampa Bay area, Baker said, but "it takes a bit of a broader-thinking political base."

A history of rivalry

That may be easier said than done.

Complicating the chances for regional cooperation here is the long-standing rivalry between Tampa and St. Petersburg. Though close geographically, the cities grew up differently, both ethnically and temperamentally.

Tampa was a bustling, tempestuous stew of Cubans, Italians, Spaniards and Jews drawn by the profitable cigar industry. The ethnic groups often clashed in labor disputes with the cigar barons and the native-born political establishment.

St. Petersburg, on the other hand, was a sleepy tourist and retirement town with few industries. The population was mostly white and black.

"St. Pete was the un-Tampa," said Gary Mormino, historian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "It had very little ethnic diversity. Its great product was its image as a wholesome tourist community."

Mormino said during World War II, Tampa was overwhelmed by military bases and war workers. Tampa's housing stock was not sufficient to the crush and St. Petersburg agreed to house workers and wives of servicemen - an early example of regional cooperation.

After the war, Tampa seemed to win every competition for iconic industries and institutions. Probably the biggest victory was being chosen as the home campus for the University of South Florida, the first public four-year university to be built south of Gainesville.

The battle for the university was hard-fought, and both major newspapers joined the fray. Because the university site in Tampa was near the old Schlitz Brewery, the St. Petersburg Times labeled the yet-to-be-built school "Beer Tap U."

The Tampa Tribune fired back, saying students in St. Petersburg would have a hard time navigating around elderly retirees and their walkers. Tampa won, Mormino said, largely because of the clout of U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, a Tampa Democrat.

Other Tampa coups followed. Largely because of the airfield built in Drew Park during World War II, land was available for Tampa International Airport, which opened in 1971. Five years later, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers began play on the east side of the bay, and in 1996, the Tampa Bay Lightning relocated to downtown Tampa from St. Petersburg.

"That helped generate the rivalry," said Pick Talley, former Hillsborough commissioner and Pinellas Utilities chief. "St. Petersburg wanted every one of those things and Tampa got them all."

Twin Cities divide

The spats between Tampa and St. Petersburg sound familiar, said Carolyn Marinan, the spokeswoman for Hennepin County in Minnesota.

Minneapolis, the state's largest city, is Hennepin's county seat. Ten miles away, separated by a sliver of interstate highway and divided by the Mississippi River, lies Ramsey County and St. Paul, the state's second largest city - and Minneapolis' long-time rival.

Although known as the Twin Cities, they couldn't be more different, Marinan said.

"St. Paul has a warmer personality," she said. "It feels like a neighborhood town. Minneapolis is slicker."

Minneapolis is also the area's central business district with more nightlife, said Hennepin County Commission Chairman Mike Opat. The Minnesota Twins play there in Major League Baseball's newest stadium, Target Field. Basketball's Minnesota Timberwolves hoop it up next door at the Target Center.

St. Paul, however, has hockey's Minnesota Wild. That didn't stop the city across the river from trying to take the Twins out of Minneapolis when the team's owners said they wanted out of the aging Metrodome, Opat said.

Both cities submitted stadium proposals to state lawmakers, but in the end, Minneapolis won out. St. Paul "just didn't have the economic wherewithal to make it happen," Opat said.

The struggle lasted 10 years.

"St. Paul always had an innate jealousy," said Marinan, a Minnesota native who has lived in both cities. "They're irritated at big Minneapolis. There's always competition."

Opat has a warning for rival cities fighting over a sports team.

"Teams that play one side against the other, looking for a better deal - you know, it sours everyone after a while," he said.

Tampa Bay area cooperation

The two major communities in the Bay area have united in the past for a common cause. The best-known example was creation of Tampa Bay Water in 1998. The utility, successor to the West Coast Regional Water Authority, ended the decades-long water wars between St. Petersburg and Pinellas County on one side, and Hillsborough and Pasco County on the other.

Despite some costly and embarrassing foul-ups at its desalination plant and the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir, the agency is credited with ensuring a stable water supply in the three counties and ending environmentally damaging over-pumping of groundwater.

Other examples include the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and Agency on Bay Management, which worked with industries in both counties to clean up nitrogen pollution in Tampa Bay and regrow sea grass; and the Friendship TrailBridge, a grassroots effort to preserve the old Gandy Bridge for fishing, biking and walking.

But skeptics point out that Tampa Bay Water would not have happened without outside pressure from the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The state agency wanted less groundwater pumping and new surface water supplies developed, actions that could only be financed through regional cooperation.

Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman argues that it will take another outside power to order the expanded search for stadium sites that Sternberg desires.

"The only way to do it is for the commissioner of baseball, saying he's helping the area, getting out of the lease," Norman said. "It cannot be the Rays saying it or Hillsborough saying it."

Tampa attorney Edward de la Parte Jr. sees a different lesson in the Tampa Bay Water collaboration. De la Parte, former general counsel for Tampa Bay Water, said the warring counties finally came together because of political foresight of leaders such as former Pinellas County Commissioner Chuck Rainey and former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco.

The crucial issue that had to be settled, de la Parte said, was the agreement by Pinellas and St. Petersburg to turn over valuable well sites in Hillsborough and Pasco to an authority with three members from Tampa, Hillsborough County and Pasco County.

Rainey died last week, and Greco is no longer in office. But de la Parte said other leaders will step up, realizing the Rays are an asset to all Bay area counties.

"If it could happen in water, which was much more contentious than the Rays ever could be, then I think a regional solution can be brought home for the sports team," he said.

Indeed, the recession and slashed city budgets may actually foster regional cooperation, Noll said, because competition is more heated when times are flush.

Baker, the Denver businessman, said regionalism will only work if Tampa and St. Petersburg agree first on one thing.

"People need to want baseball in their community," he said, "no matter what city it's in."


Researcher Buddy Jaudon contributed to this report. Reporter Mike Salinero can be reached at (813) 259-8303. Reporter Ray Reyes can be reached at (813) 259-7920.

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