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TEAM NEEDED : St. Petersburg, Hoping to Impress Baseball, Has Built a Domed Stadium

Times Staff Writer

Noting the benches that used to line its downtown streets, critics once dismissed this sleepy retirement community as “Heaven’s waiting room.”

According to the local joke, people “had one foot in the grave and the other in St. Petersburg.”

Those sitting on the benches, reported a travel magazine in the 1950s, rode a “streetcar going nowhere.”

The city’s image has changed somewhat since then, and is probably going to change more.

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Whether it’s altogether for the better depends in large part on whether St. Petersburg can find a tenant for its $110-million Florida Suncoast Dome, an aesthetically unusual facility--it looks from the outside like a fallen cake--that was built in hopes of landing a major league baseball team.

In a controversial move--the matter was never put to referendum--the city council voted to build the stadium without any promises from the baseball commissioner’s office.

In fact, at the time of the council’s vote three years ago, then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth wired the mayor’s office, warning that St. Petersburg should not expect an expansion team just because it planned to build a stadium.

So, when the city council ignored the commissioner, the move was regarded as bold and brash by proponents of the stadium, who believed that such a step was necessary to rouse St. Petersburg from its slumber and vault it into the 21st Century.

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They said baseball wouldn’t forever ignore Florida, the country’s fourth-most populous state, and that having a domed stadium, built especially for baseball, would make St. Petersburg more attractive than the state’s other aspirants, Orlando, Miami and especially Tampa, just across Tampa Bay.

Critics called it boneheaded, arguing that the stadium would be a white elephant, used mostly to shield rock concerts and tractor pulls from the elements.

They worried about the cost of building the stadium and of maintaining and operating it, arguing that it would be a tremendous drain on the public purse far into the next century.

But mostly they were angry because they had not been allowed to voice their opinions on a ballot.

“I resent the way it got there--the fact that it was rammed down our throats,” said Dennis McDonald, a real estate executive and stadium opponent who was defeated this year in a mayoral election.

“That’s a major, major, major big league expenditure for a city of 240,000 people. It’s going to have a major impact on the city’s way of life for years to come, and we weren’t asked about it. We wanted a referendum, but we were ignored and were given a stadium.”

Opposition to the stadium, though, has quieted in recent months.

It died down considerably last summer, when the city’s flirtation with the Chicago White Sox almost resulted in one of the American League’s charter members pulling up stakes on the South Side.

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Only after getting enough concessions from the Illinois legislature, including a new stadium adjacent to ancient Comiskey Park, did the White Sox turn their backs on St. Petersburg.

Still, the sting of rejection was lessened when Mike McClure, at the time vice president of marketing for the White Sox, called Florida the last virgin franchise area in the country. “It is the greatest opportunity in baseball since Walter O’Malley took the Dodgers west to Los Angeles,” he said.

To that point, a feeling existed among the townspeople that perhaps St. Petersburg had over-reached by building a stadium and that maybe it should have realized its place. But the city’s near miss with the White Sox gave them hope.

Early one morning in the 1950s, when the New York Yankees still called St. Petersburg their spring training home, pitcher Don Larsen ran his car into a lamp post long after curfew.

Later that day, though, Manager Casey Stengel announced that Larsen would not be fined.

Explained Stengel: “Anyone who can find something to do in St. Petersburg at 5 in the morning deserves a medal, not a fine.”

Times have changed in St. Pete. It may still look like a retirement village, but the demographics suggest otherwise. The city is now home to more people under 24 than over 65.

City officials have recently approved more than $750 million in major construction projects, including, besides the stadium, a $12-million renovation of a waterfront restaurant-and-retail complex called the Pier, a $25-million face lift of an arena-theater complex called Bayfront Center, and a $200-million redevelopment effort that will encompass nine square blocks downtown.

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And they are well aware that:

--About 4.5 million people live within a two-hour drive of St. Petersburg, which sits at the geographic center of the Tampa Bay area, the nation’s 13th-largest media market.

--Of the 35 million tourists who pour into Florida each year, about 5 million visit the Tampa Bay area, the economic equivalent of 150,000 additional year-round residents.

And, as one resident put it: “The only reason this town exists is to separate Yankees from their dollars. There’s nothing here--no agriculture, very little industry. It’s always been a tourist area--bring people down here from up north, take their money and send them home.”

If St. Pete could bring in a few Rebel dollars, too, all the better.

The most visible part of the city’s make-over, of course, is the stadium, which is among the city’s tallest buildings and was built to accommodate 43,000 baseball fans. The distinctive slant of the roof, from 225 feet over second base to 85 feet over the center-field wall, serves to cut costs by reducing the cubic footage of air to be heated or air-conditioned.

Ever since 1914, when the old St. Louis Browns arrived as the first of seven teams that have used the city as their spring training base, major league baseball has been a part of St. Petersburg. For several years, two teams trained each spring in the Sunshine City.

Among those that followed the Browns were the Yankees, who stayed from 1925 to 1961, and the New York Mets, who trained in St. Petersburg for 25 years before taking up spring residence two years ago in Port St. Lucie. The St. Louis Cardinals arrived in 1938 and have trained in the city ever since.

City officials believe that the 18 major league teams that train each spring in Florida have built a growing interest in baseball.

“We have 18 teams basically doing the advance marketing for bringing a baseball team here,” said Dodge, the assistant city manager, noting that the Atlanta Braves--the only major league franchise in the Southeast--play their home games almost 500 miles from St. Petersburg.

Until the White Sox showed genuine interest in the city last year, though, St. Petersburg was easily dismissed.

But, while negotiating with the White Sox, “We became a known and attractive quantity to a whole lot of key people in baseball,” Dodge said. “We were no longer knocking on the door. Somebody was on the other side pointing and saying, ‘That’s where I want to go.’ ”

One thing that particularly interested Sox officials was a potentially lucrative broadcasting package. They were prepared to call the team the Florida White Sox and to market the team throughout the state. A report commissioned by St. Petersburg officials predicted that the White Sox would have made $10 million in local television, cable and radio revenue this year.

Jerry Reinsdorf, majority owner of the White Sox, later said that the decision to stay in Chicago cost the team about $9.5 million a year.

Despite its longtime relationship with baseball, St. Petersburg didn’t pursue a major league franchise until the late 1970s. “Because of St. Petersburg’s romance and history with baseball, the idea was that we would construct a stadium and pursue a professional baseball team,” Mayor Robert Ulrich said.

Actually, it was a little more complicated than that, but not much.

An act of the state legislature in 1977 created the Pinellas (County) Sports Authority, a mostly volunteer organization put together to build a stadium and find a major league tenant. Five years later, the city gave the PSA a stadium site, a 66-acre parcel of land bordered on three sides by interstate highways.

That caused quite a stir across the bay. Tampa, St. Pete’s longtime rival, formed the Tampa Bay Baseball Group, whose function was to bring major league baseball to the east side of the bay.

Many Tampa residents believed that St. Petersburg was unworthy of major league status, including Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, whose view of the city across the bay consisted of “nothing but a bunch of old people and a rickety bridge to get there.”

The Tampa Tribune, in an editorial, said the stadium site “puts one in mind of a particularly pinched Albanian village” and said that St. Petersburg as a whole suffers from “a feeling of betrayal and anger and desolation that hangs over the city like poison gas.”

Apparently, those perceptions of St. Petersburg have changed. Last March, the Tampa Bay Baseball Group announced that it had joined forces with St. Petersburg, agreeing to lease the stadium. “Until Tampa and St. Pete came together, (the feud) presented a formidable obstacle to our goal,” Ulrich said.

Estimating that the proposed stadium would cost $85 million, the Pinellas Sports Authority was empowered to issue tax-exempt revenue bonds backed by a county tourist-development tax and the city’s share of the state sales tax.

Several lawsuits unsuccessfully attempted to block construction of the stadium before the city council voted in 1986 to build it.

An earlier redevelopment project had been voted down by the public, but this time the public got no chance to voice its opinion.

In 1987, though, an opponent of the stadium, former Mayor Ed Cole, was unsuccessful in his bid for reelection, losing to Ulrich. Analysts saw the vote as the referendum that never was, a vote for the stadium. Later, a group led by McDonald attempted to recall Ulrich and all but one member of the city council, but when the White Sox came calling, the bid stalled.

Meanwhile, the cost of the stadium has continued to climb. In fact, the city does not have the $30 million or so needed to buy a scoreboard and artificial turf. City officials are counting on a handout from the state legislature, which last year offered $30 million to the next city able to lure a major professional sports franchise to Florida.

The city debt has more than doubled in the last four years, from $116 million in 1985 to $262 million last year. Property taxes have been increased. As long as the stadium sits empty, the annual operating deficit is expected to be at least $2 million.

And, despite the obvious appeal of the state, the commissioner’s office has made no guarantee that baseball will expand to Florida.

Just last July, addressing the subject of expansion, the late Bart Giamatti said: “Baseball has gone out of its way, particularly in the case of St. Petersburg, to say to a city, ‘Do not build a stadium on spec. Do not spend public moneys to build a stadium in the confident assurance that will get you an expansion team.’ . . . “

St. Pete is undeterred.

Baseball will come to Florida, city officials insist, and when it does, no city will be more prepared than St. Petersburg.

“We knew that if we built a stadium first, no one else would,” Dodge said. “We established that when a franchise came, this is where it would come.”

SEATING CAPACITIES

CONFIGURATION SEATING Conventions, exhibits (152,000 sq. ft.) 50,000 Baseball 43,000 Soccer 39,600 Track, football 37,400 Boxing, indoor soccer 28,900 Basketball, tennis 22,000-35,000 Concerts 12,000-50,000


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