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Tampa to St. Pete: Rays for New Cruise Port?

By Jim Dietrich -- May 13, 2012 1:43 PM EDT

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In the ongoing struggle to find the best place to build a new home for the Tampa Bay Rays, the Hillsborough County Commission has come up with the most-interesting proposal to-date: swap the baseball team for a new cruise port.

When completed in 1987 as a replacement to the aging original twin span, one of which was destroyed in a freighter crash in 1980 that killed 35 people, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge was heralded as a marvel of engineering. The swooping yellow cables reminded the main proponent of the design, then-Governor Bob Graham, of sailboats in Tampa Bay, and the concrete islands, called "dolphins", ensure the supporting pylons are well-guarded from future accidents. It instantly became an icon of the Tampa Bay area for all the world to see.

However, they weren't aware that, less than 20 years later, the marine industry was going to be supersized. Sitting 185 ft above the mean high tide for the channel, the new bridge has, in fact, 30 more feet of clearance than its predecessor, another achievement that was praised. But due to the ever-increasing size of ships, both freighters and cruise ships alike, the new industry standard far exceeds that, sometimes by as much as 40 feet. In fact, the Port of Tampa has been put on-notice that, within the next five to six years, most of the cruise ships that can fit under the Skyway will be moved and no new replacements can be brought in.

So, according to the Tampa Bay Times, the Hillsborough County Commission has informed St. Petersburg and Pinellas County that they will give them the cruise ship business, to the west of the Skyway, in exchange for rights to be the new home of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Commission has said that Pinellas, and especially St. Pete, would directly benefit by increased leisure traffic going to and from the new port in the form of restaurants, bars, and hotel stays. Hillsborough would still receive docking fees, however, as the channel (thanks to the deal that carved Pinellas County out of Hillsborough in 1912) still belongs to them, but the rest of the residuals would go to Pinellas and St. Pete alone.

Two proposed places mentioned by the Commission are either a proposed manmade island to the immediate west of the Skyway to allow direct access from Interstate 275 or on Egmont Key, a nature preserve, via a ferry system from either Fort DeSoto, Tierra Verde, or St. Petersburg.

St. Pete mayor, Bill Foster, said he thought it was an "interesting" idea, but no further comment was made, as his policy on stadium matters has been the same for a few years: the Rays can look anywhere in Pinellas County, but because of the contract the team has with St. Pete, no other locales could be discussed without city permission. To date, the city has not given such permission.

Stay tuned for a coming op-ed article on how this author feels about the proposal and what recommendations could be made to solve both counties' issues.



(Photo courtesy of Robert Neff, Fifth World Art)

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