Could a dream location finally be on the table for a Rays stadium?

ST. PETERSBURG — For a very long time, they have been looking for second picks and consolation prizes.

Whenever the Rays offered a preferred location for a potential stadium, they were told that the land was unavailable for one reason or another. Owner Stu Sternberg once prefaced a list of his five favorite sites by explaining that each was deemed untouchable by the powers that be.

What if that wasn’t true anymore?

What if enough time has passed, enough politicians have passed through City Hall, enough new voters have moved into nearby neighborhoods that a once off-limits site will be available for discussion in 2022?

What if all the frustration of the last decade turns out to be a necessary prelude for the perfect site to finally become politically viable?

Of course, this may just be a fantasy. A longshot that will join the doomed ideas of the past. There’s a good chance it won’t even go beyond the whispering stage.

What if the Albert Whitted airport site was really at stake?

On that list of dream locations Sternberg spoke of in 2017, Albert Whitted was near the top, likely behind the only Heights development off the Hillsborough River as a frontrunner. (The former Tampa Grandstand building in downtown Tampa, the Jefferson High site near Westshore Boulevard, and Al Lang Stadium were Sternberg’s other three choices.)

Albert Whitted is a 100+ acre waterfront property that would rival San Francisco’s Oracle Park as Major League Baseball’s most scenic home ground.

And now, it seems, the new mayor of St. Petersburg, Ken Welch, is open to the possibility of reallocating this land. On January 27, Welch announced via Twitter that he had asked city staff to study economic and community impacts to “identify the best use of the site.”

Less than a week later, Welch met with Rays executives at City Hall. Neither side would comment on the meeting, but Welch apparently wanted to know if the team would seriously consider staying in St. Pete if the city came up with a viable plan.

So, is Albert Whitted part of this scenario?

It wouldn’t be the first time a St. Pete mayor has looked longingly at this piece of land. Nor would it be the second, third or fourth time.

You can go back nearly a century and find politicians and city leaders questioning the wisdom of a small private airport on such valuable property. Charles Harvey told St. Pete City Council in 1935 that his family never intended to build an airport there when they turned the land over to the city, and he briefly threatened legal action if the airport was not moved.

In the 1940s, the Saint-Petersburg timetable The editorial board called the airport “a glorified garage and little training ground” and advocated its closure. In 1958 the City Manager of St. Pete recommended the airport be closed, and in the 1970s and 1980s there were separate proposals to close one of the two runways to make way for expansion from USF. As recently as the 2000s, former mayor Rick Baker attempted to close a runway and Rick Kriseman suggested that an airport was not the best use of the land.

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So how has the airport survived all these slights and takeover attempts?

With unwavering public support that, at first glance, seems hard to explain. Polls over the years have shown that voters still favor keeping the airport, even though only a fraction of residents have ever used the private facility. When a referendum in 2003 proposed closing the airport in favor of a public park, voters overwhelmingly – by a margin of 78 to 22 – chose to keep Albert Whitted open.

Five years later, the Rays proposed a referendum to build a new ballpark on the site of Al Lang Stadium, but ended the campaign prematurely due to public sentiment against changes to the waterfront.

Case closed, right?

Not necessarily. Only about 35,000 residents voted in the 2003 referendum, and St. Pete now has nearly 185,000 registered voters.

The city has changed and, inevitably, the population too. If the mayor has a successful plan tied to the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site with Al Lang and Albert Whitted to include a stadium, affordable housing, green fields and a business park, it could have widespread appeal for a new generation. of voters. .

Neither the mayor nor the city council can unilaterally shut down Albert Whitted, but a new referendum could open the door to changes at this site.

“I don’t think there’s a significant appetite in the community to do this,” said St. Pete City Councilman Ed Montanari, who was the chairman of an Albert Whitted task force in 2004. “I think it would be a long time to close the airport for multiple reasons, including (the city’s) charter and funding issues.

These funding issues could be an even bigger hurdle to overcome. The airport received millions of dollars in federal grants that would potentially have to be repaid if it were closed.

The Federal Aviation Administration is also likely to approve the plan, and the FAA has backed the airport in the past.

And all of that would have to happen before determining how much public money would be needed for a stadium that would likely cost more than $1 billion.

So yeah, that’s probably a long shot.

On the other hand, there’s a reason Albert Whitted has looked like catnip to mayor after mayor. It occupies some of the city’s major real estate, yet produces little economic benefit. And, unlike the pier, for example, it is not used by a large number of residents.

“The fact that we’ve spent all the money from this grant and barely increased usage doesn’t paint a very good picture of the airport,” said Karl Nurse, a former member of the city council and of the airport working group. “I’m not sure anyone would say that an airport is the top priority and the best use of this land unless you own a Piper Cub (plane).”

Does that mean a ballpark would serve residents better? Nor is it a guarantee. Especially with the price to pay.

But the mayor wants to have a conversation about keeping the Rays. He wants to have a conversation about the economic stimulators around Tropicana Field. And he wants a conversation about how to get the most out of prime waterfront property.

Sounds like conversations worth having.

Jean Romano can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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