St. Pete: no team, but bills for the dome


The latest rejection in a 10-year effort to join the big leagues left St. Petersburg, Fla., residents frustrated, disappointed and looking for ways to use their $110 million dome stadium.

"It's like being engaged to get married for a long time and you're at the altar and somebody pulls you out and says she's got somebody else and you've already paid for the reception," said Barry McDowell, 45, director of activities at Eckerd College.

With a stadium in place and the nation's 13th-largest TV market, the Tampa Bay area deserved a major-league team, residents believe. But baseball commissioner Fay Vincent announced Monday that the two recommended sites for expansion franchises are Denver and Miami.

"Any time you invest this much in a project, and I'm not just talking about dollars . . . there is going to be a period of disappointment that won't just go away overnight," said Robert Stewart, a St. Petersburg City Council member who is the city's officially designated "ambassador" to major-league baseball.

St. Petersburg has to pay almost $10 million a year for construction bonds and to cover operating deficits at the Suncoast Dome. While neighboring Tampa has the NFL Buccaneers, St. Petersburg was hoping a big-league sports franchise would help it shed its image as a sleepy retirement haven.

Stewart and other leaders already have turned their attention to luring an existing team. The Chicago White Sox almost moved to St. Petersburg in 1988, before the Illinois Legislature agreed to a last-minute deal to build them a new stadium in Chicago.

St. Petersburg is looking for investors who would be interested in buying a team and moving it to St. Petersburg, Stewart said, and city officials have talked with owners of some troubled franchises.

"Clearly, the Houston Astros are for sale . . . and the Cleveland Indians are in a tenuous situation. . . . The Seattle Mariners have been mentioned on occasion. The Tampa Bay Mariners sounds pretty good."

In the meantime, St. Petersburg will continue to try to offset the cost of the dome with anything from trade shows to tractor pulls. There were 22 events in the stadium from opening in March 1990 through the end of 1990; 34 events are expected to be held there this year, according to general manager Jerry Oliver.

"To be very candid with you, it doesn't change a whole lot," said Oliver. "We were trying to get all the events we could, anyway. Naturally, we're under the gun -- I guess more so -- because we're not going to have those 81 [home] baseball games."

The next event scheduled in the dome is an arena football game Saturday. The last home game of the Tampa Bay Storm drew more than 10,000 spectators, an arena football record, Oliver said.

Some observers have suggested the dome hurt St. Petersburg's bid for a team because players and fans prefer outdoor stadiums. But with no team in sight, Stewart said, "Thank heavens, we have a roof over it and can use it.

"It's bad enough to sit here with a dome and no tenant," he said. "What would be even worse would be to sit here with an open air stadium and no tenant."

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