For months, representatives from the Downtown Neighborhood Association and the Council of Neighborhood Associations had met with St. Petersburg city planners and politicians, advocating a plan to convert Al Lang Field into a public park when the Tampa Bay Rays leave their longtime spring training site next year.
And for months, the City Council and Mayor Rick Baker had said they wanted to keep their options open before rezoning the area to limit height and commercial developments.
Pro-park neighborhood leaders wondered aloud why the city was stalling on designating the site as a public park.
They now know why.
On Nov. 9, the Tampa Bay Rays called a press conference after the St. Petersburg Times revealed the baseball team's proposal for a 35,000-seat stadium on the city's waterfront. Over the last year, Rays officials have mentioned the need for a new stadium. Al Lang Field would not only offer the perfect scenic backdrop for the St. Petersburg-based team but allow them to wiggle out of their lease at Tropicana Field. Projected cost: $450 million, with the Rays contributing up to $150 million.
"Now we understand why the city administration wanted flexibility on the zoning for Al Lang Field," wrote neighborhood activist Karl Nurse in an e-mail to CONA membership after the announcement. "... Obviously, the Rays and city staff were talking during this time, and this is the reason for the stall."
The move to get Al Lang Field designated a public park has been brewing among neighborhood leaders for two years. Concrete covers nearly half of the waterfront already, Downtown Neighborhood Association president Tim Baker frequently says in presentations.
"What makes St. Pete a better place to live than Tampa is the waterfront," Baker said in an interview before the Rays announced their proposal. "We need to protect it."
At that time, Baker (no relation to the mayor) had heard rumors about a possible stadium but was more concerned about high-rise buildings or a new City Hall.
Just a day before the Rays' announcement, the possibility of a stadium never came up in interviews with various city officials.
"There has been a lot of speculation on [Al Lang Field]," Managing Director of City Development Kevin Dunn told CL on Nov. 8. "We've heard of converting it to an amphitheater, which would be one option."
On the same day, Councilman Earnest Williams, whose district includes the area, called redevelopment of Al Lang a non-issue.
"I think it's premature to be talking about it," he said. "People are trying to protect something that may not need protecting."
(Because of the Veterans' Day holiday, St. Petersburg planners and elected officials could not be reached for comment on the latest developments.)
But the Rays' vision is still far from reality. Even if city officials back the Rays proposal, the stadium would need to be approved in a voter referendum. And neighborhood leaders aren't keen on the idea of public financing another stadium.
"This city government ought to get their heads out of the pumpkin patch if they intend to spend that kind of money," wrote Central Oak Park resident Louis Del Prete in another CONA e-mail. "$450 million is just too much for the taxpayers to swallow."