Stadium sign wars

Theft and vandalism in the fight over the proposed ballpark

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click to enlarge VANDALIZED: This POWW sign on Pasadena Avenue is only one of many defaced over the past month. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
VANDALIZED: This POWW sign on Pasadena Avenue is only one of many defaced over the past month.

For months, the members of Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront knew the hostilities between them and Rays supporters were rising: more raised voices and insults at public forums; increasingly brusque letters to newspapers; a few stolen signs.

But on May 17, there was a bitter turning point.

That night, as prominent POWW member Betsi Burgess slept in her Old Northeast home, someone drove up into her yard, stole her POWW sign and egged her house. When Burgess realized her POWW sign was missing and saw the smashed eggs on her doorstep, she called her husband, who was out of town. Then, she called the police.

"She was upset," John Burgess recalls. "Not so much because she was afraid, but because they would have the nerve to do that."

If it were a summer night during any other year, the Burgesses would have chalked up the vandalism to a few boneheaded teenagers. But for the last month, the Burgesses' home had been a distribution point for those ubiquitous red POWW signs. Their address and phone number was listed on the POWW website. Over several weeks, hundreds of people had come by to take signs, leave donations and vent about the Rays. John Burgess frequently spoke at neighborhood association meetings and wrote letters to the newspapers.

"I think they were targeted because they were immensely successful," says Virginia Littrell of POWW.

The incident at the Burgesses' home is just one example of an increasingly hostile division among St. Pete residents over the Rays' proposed waterfront stadium. And in neighborhoods across St. Pete, that hostility is playing out with political yard signs. Residents affiliated with the pro-stadium group Fans for a Waterfront Stadium talk about next-door neighbors stealing their blue signs. POWW supporters point to 4-by-8-foot red billboards that vandals have slashed or spray-painted.

"If the Rays have succeeded at anything, they've succeeded in creating two camps of our citizens," says John Burgess, "and it's led to incidents like this."

"There's passion on both sides," admits Michael Kalt, vice president of the Tampa Bay Rays. "Unfortunately, there's a measure of civility that's been lost in all this."

Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront began their sign campaign in April. Littrell, a former city councilmember, helped develop the design: large white letters on a red background.

"You don't even have to see the words, and you know what it says," she points out.

POWW has given away "many, many thousands" of signs since, blanketing nearly every neighborhood in the city.

"Most politicians would kill to have exposure like this," says Hal Freedman of POWW.

Last month, in an effort to stem the red (sign) tide, the Rays produced their own placards. Rays VP Kalt says the signs were influencing elected officials, and "we decided we needed to do the same thing."

Kalt says the Rays have given away 2,000 signs, mostly by handing them out at baseball games. Fans for a Waterfront Stadium is spending weekends on major intersections giving them out, too, in addition to their own "Let Us Vote" signs.

"I think what's interesting is it seems like people are just counting them, almost like a poll," observes Mitch Kates, a local political consultant. "I have to constantly remind people signs don't vote."

Tell that to the residents of Old Northeast.

A drive through the neighborhood's brick streets reveals block after block of homes sporting red or blue signs. Some yards have multiple placards. Others are tied to fences or hung in trees to reduce the chance of theft. A few split-personality homes sport both Rays and POWW signs. At last count, there were 240 signs spread out through Old Northeast. (Interestingly, 68 percent of the signs opposed a new stadium — the exact percentage in a recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll.)

Old Northeast also seems to be ground zero for sign vandalism.

Both sides contend that dozens of their signs are stolen from the neighborhood every week. Others are simply defaced, like the POWW billboard in a vacant lot at Fourth Street N. and 22nd Avenue.

"We decided to keep it up," says Littrell, "because now it makes another message — why are people afraid to let [our] message get out?"

The incidents have prompted POWW to ask the St. Petersburg Police Department to track reports of theft and vandalism. According to spokesman George Kajtsa, there have been 31 incidents so far, the majority over the last two weeks.

"Occasionally, an entire area will be stripped over the weekend," says Littrell. "That to me is a targeted, coordinated effort; it's not just some kid taking signs."

The other side reports damage as well.

"Within the first 24 hours of us getting signs, we're getting reports of them stolen," says Tracy Locke of Fans for a Waterfront Stadium. "We haven't encouraged anybody to call the police, because quite honestly, I don't know if that's a good use of their time."

Locke says the increase in thefts has some owners setting up surveillance cameras to catch the suspects.

The heads of both groups are quick to point out they don't accuse each other.

"I would hope it is not the Rays or the Fans [for a Waterfront Stadium]," says POWW's Freedman. "I would expect it's not. But apparently there is an element that supports the stadium that doesn't want these signs."

On June 5, the City Council voted to begin the process for a November referendum on the proposed stadium. The council will have to vote two more times — on July 17 and Aug. 7 — to put the issue on the ballot.

"Our hope was to have a fairly dispassionate debate about the merits of the project," says the Rays' Kalt. "But that may have been naïve of us."

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