The numbers are in, and they aren't good for the Rays' proposal to build a new stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront. The results of a St. Petersburg Times poll released today found that 68% of city residents currently oppose the team's plan to open up the Tropicana Field site for development and move several blocks down the street to the site of Al Lang Stadium for a new ballpark. Of the 68% percent opposed, 57% "strongly oppose" the team's plan, while the remaining 11% are only "somewhat opposed". Just 19% favor the plan, either strongly or somewhat.
The silver lining for the Rays is that residents appear eager to vote on the matter, and they wish for the city council to schedule a November referendum on the issue. Of those surveyed, 60% want a vote scheduled and just 37% want the process to terminate immediately. The council would need to vote three times in order to place the matter on final passage, with the first of those votes scheduled for next Thursday. If the council collectively votes 'no' in any of the three votes, the proposal will not see the ballot in November.
As referenced earlier this week, 82% of residents contacted consider parking a "huge problem" associated with the plan. The next biggest problem appears to be public financing; 56% of residents say that continuing debt service payments on Tropicana Field to pay for the new plan is among their "biggest concerns", and 59% oppose continuing those payments.
So what does this all mean? Well, as an unabashed supporter of the proposal, I offer my takes following the jump.
- The Rays tried to spin these results in their favor, but there is no way that the plan's architects at One Tropicana Drive are not fretting over what they see. There is simply no way to look at 68% opposition and be optimistic. The opposition totals are very similar to the final ones for the last major waterfront initiative to go to the ballot, a 2003 vote that saw 77% of St. Petersburg voters firmly reject any proposed changes to Albert Whitted Airport.
- That isn't to say that there aren't silver linings here. Three-fifths of those surveyed said firmly that they wanted to see the proposal put on the November ballot. This is the matter most up for interpretation here. What does that, in concert with the support for the proposal itself, say about the will of St. Pete voters? City Council member Herb Polson had this to say:
What your poll is telling me is, 'Give us the chance to vote so we can say no because we don't want it on the Al Lang site.
- Perhaps. Another possibility is, as the Rays point out, that a lot of issues are currently unsettled and that voters want to see this matter unfold in its entirety before killing the matter prematurely. Among the issues that need to be settled before a November vote would occur include an agreement to redevelop Tropicana Field, a lease for the Rays to play in the new stadium, a more specific parking plan, and the final financing plan. These matters are, in large part, dependent upon one another, so things could starting moving on the fast track once the city selects either Hines or Archstone-Madison as their preferred redeveloper.
- If the Rays need to take one element out of these poll numbers and work on it, that element is clearly the matter of parking. The team can take their chances with the 56-59% who have financing problems. Quite frankly, I'm surprised that the 56-59% number isn't higher. Financing issues tend to evoke more rigid political beliefs: some people are just dead set against any kind of public financing for stadiums, and you likely can't compromise with them. You can only really neutralize so much of it, and 56-59% is a workable number. But if 82% of the electorate has issues with parking, you clearly need to work on that. That number, in relation to the overall plan, yields the most potential for the Rays to find additional supporters. Logistical problems can be addressed and, hopefully, rectified. Philosophical ones cannot. In that regard, the Rays should be optimistic. But to act upon the flexibility this chief complaint inherently presents, they need to address the problem completely and they need to do an effective job at publicizing the solution.
- On the other hand, there is just a certain element of the voting population that you just aren't going to have much luck with:
"Downtown St. Petersburg is already congested. I don't go there," said city resident Kate Petroczy, 57. "There's not enough safe parking. And I emphasize safe."
- I would suggest to this individual that since you don't go downtown, you clearly cannot have a reasonable perspective on how this stadium plan would impact the area. You can argue with the quantity of parking and whether there is enough to support the stadium, but downtown isn't congested now, you're wrong, and I would like to know what significant number of "unsafe" parking there is in the downtown area. If it is a matter of safety, I'm sure that can be addressed with additional police traffic on gameday. As it is, I don't know what you're talking about. What high-crime areas are there in the vicinity of Al Lang Stadium? I would argue that Tropicana Field relies far more on "unsafe" parking currently than would the new ballpark, and even that is overblown.
- An interesting wild card in this entire process is African-American support, as this passage notes:
Kalt also suggested that the random telephone survey may not be completely accurate. Only 6 percent of poll respondents were African-American residents. Citywide, African-American residents make up 19.6 percent of all registered voters.
The Rays' have been courting African-American voters based on the potential opportunities created by the redevelopment of Tropicana Field.
On Friday, the local branches of the NAACP and Urban League, along with two local African-American pastors held a press conference at City Hall supporting a referendum.
- While the poll may contain its issues with respect to African-American representation, the more important factor to consider is that community's turnout in the November election. With Sen. Barack Obama all but assured of being the Democratic nominee for President, the African-American community could turn out in record numbers across the community to support his historic candidacy. Obviously that would impact things quite a great deal in St. Petersburg, which is a very diverse city. The Rays have worked exceptionally hard to woo African-American support for their stadium proposal, hosting town meetings in cooperation with the NAACP and signing what amounts to a memorandum of understanding with targeted groups in which they state their desire to promote minority business ownership and advancement in all fields, but specifically with regards to the new Tropicana Field development. This, in my opinion, could be key to the whole plan. St. Petersburg's African-American community was more disadvantaged than anyone else by the construction of Tropicana Field in the late 1980s, as several predominantly black housing projects were demolished to make room for stadium parking lots in the Gas Plant neighborhood. If the Rays can make amends for embittering moves that they are associated with 20 years later, that could go a long way towards getting the African-American community to vote as a bloc in favor of the proposal. As mentioned above, they have already garnered the support of several local African-American advocacy organizations. If they can get the strong support of what should be a huge African-American turnout in November, they could be in good shape.
- Another wild card in the whole matter is, of course, the success of the team. Like it or not, the merits of the proposal will be cast aside by many in favor of an evaluation based on wins and losses. It is far easier to develop good sentiments about a plan being proposed by a winning ballclub than it is to do the same for a plan being proposed by perennial losers. It is further difficult to develop support if you're a team full of players with character issues. The Rays have already done their best to discard players that would present image problems, all that remains to address is the winning aspect of things. That could ultimately determine the fate of a plan with longer-term implications.
- What say our fearless city leaders on the matter?
Mayor Rick Baker:
My guess is people typically lean toward having the right to vote.
- Groundbreaking stuff. Seriously though, Mayor Baker has ridden a fine line in his statements regarding this proposal. He is taking the politically safe route; that is, no route at all. His support could potentially boost the proposal to victory, but at the same time his opposition could be its death knell. A lot of local politicians aren't taking sides because this is an election year, but Baker's term expires in 2009 and he won't seek re-election. This gives him a little bit of immunity, yet he is still taking a deliberate and politically-smart approach to this, for now. I suspect that Baker will remain on the sidelines until all of the details on the proposal are out, vetted, and finalized. At that point, my best inclination would be to say that he will favor it given his reputation as a development-friendly mayor. In any case, I don't think he will come out against it, but he could maintain his ambiguity should the proposal look like it is headed for failure in September or October.
City Councilman Jeff Danner:
"You hear a lot of people who say it should go to referendum and let the people decide," Danner said. "I think that comes from the fact that people didn't get to decide last time. I think there's a lot of people who want a referendum so they can vote no."
- I think that there is probably some truth to this. A lot of people were embittered by the experience that resulted in Tropicana Field. No public referendum was ever scheduled at any point of that process on the issuance of bonds or a tourist tax to cover the-then Florida Suncoast Dome's cost. The anger that a lot of city residents felt towards the process was compounded by the struggle to attract a major league team, and the additional costs to upgrade the stadium in a 1996-98 renovation. A lot of people are not evaluating the proposal on its merits and are instead using this as an opportunity to rebuke the decisions that the city fathers made 20 years ago. I look at it this way: things are the way they are. Tropicana Field is not going to de-construct itself and you're not going to be able to drive past the Gas Plant and Laurel Park tomorrow morning. These things aren't coming back, and neither is the money used to build the dome. The Soreno Hotel isn't coming back, neither are the Cardinals, and the time and money wasted on the failed Bay Plaza developments won't return. All you can do is look at the city as it is going forward, and that means accepting the good with the bad.
- The good is, we have a Major League Baseball team playing in Tampa Bay. Specifically, we have a Major League Baseball team that plays its home games in St. Petersburg. We finally won something and introduced parity to the Bay Area sports scene. Tropicana Field is, for better or worse, St. Petersburg's Field of Dreams and the Rays give St. Petersburg prestige. Even those apathetic to baseball must grant that. The city might not have been fully able to take advantage of this due to the team's futility over the last ten years, but even then we were able to stake claim to the title "Major League Town". Now that the Rays are winning, St. Pete could host a MLB playoff game. This city has come a long way from the days of Green Benches and Early Bird Specials. Most people would agree that the Rays are a big reason for that, just generally and ignoring the troubles with the Trop and everything else.
- Based off of that, we should be clear. Tropicana Field is not a facility that will sustain Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg indefinitely. It will need to be replaced at some point, most likely in the next 5-10 years. A lot of the debt payments on the stadium will expire in the next decade, and at that point it will no longer be cost-prohibitive for the team to break its lease. Simply put, I think it is a good bet that no matter how this plan turns out, the Rays will not be playing in Tropicana Field at the start of the 2020 season. The lease extends through 2027. Assume that they will remain in the Trop for the entirety of the lease at your peril. It simply isn't up to Major League standards anymore. This new stadium proposal is merely the first of what will surely be many should the current one be rejected. Whether the future proposals involve relocating the team to Gateway, Downtown, or Tampa, who knows. It is unlikely that relocation out of the Tampa Bay market is in the cards. But know in evaluating the Rays' proposal that they are not long for Tropicana Field. That isn't supposed to be a threat, it is just a reality. Some are okay with the possibility of the Rays vacating the city, but I believe that the team offers St. Petersburg something that can't be similarly-filled should they depart.
- Now, I view the Rays' plan for a waterfront stadium to be a reasonable proposal that allows St. Petersburg to maintain the prestige of having a major league team, while more efficiently taking advantage of two parcels of land. It allows 85 acres of land that currently hosts a giant wart and asphalt to go on the market as land for re-development. Being on the cusp of a bustling downtown, this is exceedingly valuable property that, developed properly, can improve the quality of life in St. Pete. The current land usage is not in keeping with sustainable living and efficiency. It is too large a property in too valuable an area to be used so infrequently. The stadium and its surrounding property is also an environmental drain. Building medium-density residental and commercial buildings (including affordable housing) will allow for the continued growth and progress of St. Petersburg. The size of the land and its location make this a unique re-development opportunity.
- What the Rays are proposing is that part of the benefits derived from this re-development be used to pay for a new stadium for their use. The financing equation hinges, in large part, upon the usage of tax revenue garnered from the site re-development. The team also proposes extending the taxes used to fund Tropicana Field for several decades in order to fund this new stadium. The developer buying the land from the city will presumably pay for the remainder of the existing debt on Tropicana Field. The only sticking points on this front are who will pay for the mitigation of environmental problems on the Tropicana site that linger from the site's Gas Plant days, as well as who will pay for the demolition of the existing dome. On the whole, these are only small elements of the plan. They are not anything that should de-rail the plan as a whole.
- To be clear, city voters are not casting a ballot on any of this. They technically have no voice in how the tax revenue is allocated, or how the Tropicana Field site is to be developed. The only thing city residents are voting on is whether to approve a long-term lease for a new stadium on the downtown site of Al Lang Stadium. Of course, this vote is entirely predicated on every other factor mentioned above. It is a catch-all vote for everything to do with the project, logistically and financially. But essentially, this lease to use the Al Lang site would be a paid upgrade in return for vacating the Tropicana Field site early and allowing development to take place. But it isn't merely a matter of reimbursement to the Rays, the City of St. Petersburg gains here as well. The current Al Lang Stadium is dormant for 11 months of the year, and it will be for all 12 when the Rays vacate it next year in favor of a new site in Port Charlotte. The alternative to the Rays' plan most often discussed is another waterfront park that would mark a continuation of St. Pete's already-lengthy system. We already have many parks downtown, a fact that we should be grateful for. The setup in St. Pete is very unique and it is part of the city's identity. The Rays have even respected this in their plan: they are including a new park on the site of the current Al Lang parking lot to replace asphalt. But would turning the entire site into a park really benefit the city as much as a new stadium would? That is the crux of the matter.
- I believe it does, quite obviously. The design for the Rays' new stadium is dynamic, unique, and reflective of the personality of the area. Look out upon the largest public marina in the Southeastern United States, and you'll see a plethora of sails that the cabling system on the new stadium emulates. It is designed to keep fans dry and cool enough, while still allowing them to be witness to the outdoor beauties of the Sunshine City. Not just the clear summer skies, and not just the progressive downtown, but also in the vast expanse of Tampa Bay in close proximity. Simply put, the stadium showcases the best that St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay have to offer. Think of it this way: in the instance that Tropicana Field hosts a signficant, nationally-televised game, fans across the country will see a drab, domed stadium surrounded by black asphalt. That's not evocative of Florida. Imagine the same game occurring in a brand new, waterfront stadium in the midst of a bustling downtown. The stunning architecture of the new stadium would add a defining monument to downtown, and it would be something that we can be legitimately proud to showcase. When people see the Rays at home, they see St. Petersburg. They see Tampa Bay. And from the new stadium, there could be no bad view of that.
- Now obviously comfort concerns come into play here. The Sunshine City is beautiful, but it is also very much known for the humidity. Anyone who has sat outside for an extended period of time in a Florida summer knows how uncomfortable things are, and the Rays will need to take steps to ensure that the weather beast is contained. They have said that between the roof and the strategic placement of air conditioning, they can make the game experience comfortable. Really, they have no reason to lie. It doesn't make sense for them to push for a stadium in which their fans would be uncomfortable. This stadium represents a long-term investment on their end, and so it would not make business sense for them to build a logistically-flawed stadium that would discourage fans from going to the ballpark. That is why, even though there are outstanding legitimate concerns about parking and some other matters, I am confident enough that they will resolve themselves that I support the whole package.