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Tampa Bay Rays pull Charlotte naming rights off meeting agenda after objections

Published By: tampabay.com

For years, Tampa Bay's Major League Baseball team was bedeviled by public relations disasters.

Its former owner raged at police after they pulled over his wife. The team shunned a charity fundraiser because it wasn't at Tropicana Field. Officials ejected a Mets scout from the stadium for using the owners' bathroom.

Getting a new owner and dropping the word "Devil" from the Tampa Bay Rays' name was supposed to signal a new day. But names can be tricky things.

Last week the Rays announced they had cut a deal with a company called Mosaic to buy naming rights for their spring training stadium in Port Charlotte. It would become "Mosaic Field at Charlotte Sports Park" for 15 years.

The only problem is that for the past decade, Charlotte County commissioners have spent $12 million battling the world's largest phosphate mining company in court. Its name: Mosaic.

The Rays' proposal to put the mining giant's name on the county's crown jewel public facility drew a reaction akin to how the Indianapolis Colts might regard renaming their stadium "Whodat Field." One county commissioner called it "an outrageous slap in the face."

Commissioners were supposed to approve the deal Tuesday. Instead, 20 minutes before the meeting began, the Rays asked to delay the vote. Team spokesman Rick Vaughn said the club wanted "adequate time to gauge community sentiment."

The gauge was probably in the red zone. Commissioners said they had received more than 100 e-mails objecting to the deal, and despite the postponement, a dozen people took the microphone to vent about the Rays' agreement with the county's longtime opponent.

Clarke Keller of Punta Gorda called it a "neon-lit monument to insensitivity." Ruth Bromberg of Port Charlotte warned that naming the stadium after "the biggest polluter in Florida" would chase away tourists. Several speakers vowed they would boycott Rays spring training games if the deal went through.

"I will not take their 30 pieces of silver, and I will not set foot in a stadium named for Mosaic," said Commissioner Adam Cummings.

But Commissioner Tricia Duffy wondered if the Sierra Club members who have been vocal in their criticism of the deal would step in and spend millions to sponsor the stadium the way Mosaic offered to do.

The commissioners will likely get another crack at the deal in two weeks. Vaughn said the team wants a vote at the next commission meeting Feb. 26 so the issue is settled before the start of spring training March 4. On the team's Web site, the spring training calendar already says that all home games will be played at "Mosaic Field."

Cummings said he had first heard from Rays officials more than a year ago that Mosaic had offered to buy the naming rights — but they were shopping around for a better partner. However, he said, last week a team official called to tell him that "nobody else was coming close to what Mosaic was offering," so the team had settled on the mining company.

The Rays did not say how much the team would get. Mosaic's spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Rays moved their spring training from St. Petersburg to Port Charlotte last year, after the facility underwent a $27 million face-lift. The contract they signed with the county allows the team to sell the naming rights to the stadium, though the county can veto the deal, as long as the veto is not "unreasonable.''

The contract says the county would get $75,000 a year for 15 years, with a 3 percent increase per year. Cummings said that total of about $1.4 million would be far less than what the county has spent opposing Mosaic.

If the Mosaic deal goes through, the mining giant's name will be on the park's interior and exterior signs, including the main scoreboard, all entry points, the marquee at the park's main entrance off State Road 776, the top of the dugouts and at the press box level behind home plate. Mosaic's trademark would also be included in various promotional materials. The company would also sponsor several community events each year, including a series of baseball clinics for children.

The genesis of Charlotte's battle with Mosaic began with the company's desire to open phosphate mines in Manatee and DeSoto counties along the headwaters of the Peace River, which flows into Charlotte Harbor.

Charlotte County commissioners voted in 1998 to oppose new mines along the river because of fears they would ruin their estuary's fishing and tourism industries, worth an estimated $3 billion, not to mention their drinking water. They were able to block one permit, and settled other cases.

Last year Charlotte County lost a case because appellate judges ruled that, despite evidence that the mining caused pollution, the Legislature said regulators could not consider the cumulative impact of all the mining along the river. However, last month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called for a cumulative impact study before approving federal permits for new mines.

In 2004 Mosaic's predecessor, Cargill, spilled 60,000 gallons of acidic water into a creek leading to Hillsborough Bay, and a year later a leaky pipeline at Mosaic's Riverview plant spilled 40,000 gallons of hazardous material into the same creek.

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