Mayoral candidates debate new Rays stadium

10:16 AM, May 8, 2009   |    comments
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St. Petersbug, Florida -- While the Rays were away, the major-league politicians were playing.

On a night where the Tampa Bay Rays completed a two-game sweep in the new Yankee Stadium, the six frontrunners in this fall's St. Petersburg mayoral race debated how - and where - a new baseball stadium should be built in Pinellas County.

The forum - closed to the public, but open to the media - was sponsored by the "Clutch Hitters," a community group made up of about 100 businessmen and women from all around the Tampa Bay area.

"We're supporters of the Rays," explained David Feaster, one of the group's leaders. "(We) understand the impact pro sports - of any kind - can have on a community."

All six candidates agreed that the Rays were an important economic engine downtown and that they would want a new stadium sometime down the road to remain competitive in the AL East. However, while some candidates thought the team would bolt as soon as 2016 (when the current debt is paid off) without a stadium, others weren't yet sold. The team's current lease runs through 2027. 

The candidates also found common ground on the idea of burying any discussion of building a stadium on the city's waterfront, as previously discussed. All said their priority would be rebuilding a park on, or adjacent to, the current Tropicana Field site.

Few offered ideas of compromise when asked what they'd do if the team demanded a move closer to the area's center of population. Among the options: the Gateway area in Northeast St. Petersburg.

When asked what kind of stadium they'd like to see built, all favored a retractable roof sign.

Below are other specifics of each candidate's plans:

Jamie Bennett - Wants a privately-funded stadium built in conjunction with a new light rail station in downtown. Says he would consider a referendum but that it is not necessary; it's the job of the City Council and the Mayor to make the hard decisions. Believes the city will have to fight to keep the Rays in St. Pete.

Kathleen Ford - Priority is to enforce current contract that goes until 2027. If a new stadium is necessary, one should only be built with approval through a referendum.

Bill Foster - Says a new stadium is a priority or the team will leave for a more attractive deal sometime after 2016. Rebuilding on the current site is the preference, but if the team doesn't want to stay downtown, he could live with the Gateway site. Letting them go to Tampa is not an option.

Deveron Gibbons - Believes the Rays will leave town in 2016 if they don't get a new stadium. Says the new mayor needs to cater to the team's needs but not commit money until a referendum is passed. Says he won't let the team pit another city against St. Pete.

Scott Wagman - Prefers to keep the team in St. Pete and put a new stadium before a voter referendum, but says the team may demand a move outside city limits. If so, working with the county to keep them in Pinellas is important.

Larry Williams - Says baseball is too important to the economy of St. Petersburg to risk losing it. The Rays may want to move out of downtown, but it is essential to fight to keep them there. Doesn't believe a referendum is always in the city's best interests and if the current location isn't going to be home to the team's new stadium, St. Pete needs to find another spot within city limits to build it.

Noah Pransky, 10 Connects News

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