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

September 15, 1989|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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