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Paul Beeston, president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays, Beeston believes snowbirds are migrating southward to the Naples/Fort Myers area. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Paul Beeston, president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays, Beeston believes snowbirds are migrating southward to the Naples/Fort Myers area. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tom Maloney

Making the big pitch in the Sunshine State Add to ...

On Main Street in ‘beautiful downtown Dunedin,’ citizens poured into the circular town hall on Thursday night to hear Mayor Dave Eggers detail the memorial preparations for a local fallen soldier, individually honour the under-11 soccer team “gals” for winning the U-11 Gator Showcase Tournament, decorate the Dunedin High wrestling team with proclamations, and annex a few lots to provide city water service. Eight politicians and city officials sat in leather reclining office chairs behind a semi-circular beechwood table, as one proud soccer dad noted how the bustling program (house-league registration: 314) would be outgrowing its fields before long.

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The soccer program may encounter some big-league competition for the parks and recreation dollars. After the players and their parents had cleared the chamber, the city commission took the first step toward a multimillion-dollar expenditure that would keep the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin (pop: 35,000) by building a new stadium and training grounds.

“This is going to be a sensitive issue for a couple of years,” commissioner Julie Ward Bujalskiv declared, with understatement. A few paces down the street, the locals and tourists dining on the patio of the Living Room Restaurant; cheering the NCAA tournament in the Smokehouse Bar-B-Q Joint; listening to the folk group in Flanagan’s Irish Pub; had scant idea what had just taken place.

The Jays have trained in Dunedin since the franchise’s birth in 1977, however, with their lease expiring in four years, there will be strong competition for the tourism dollars brought by Canadians such as those dressed in blue and white gear for a Grapefruit League game at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Friday, against the Boston Red Sox.

Over the past decade or so, Arizona has enticed a half-dozen major-league teams from Florida to conduct spring training in purposely built facilities, while inside Florida, counties supported by state funding have competed against one another to lure teams from one city to the other by renovating or building expansive facilities.

Pressure is building anew, as stadium leases for the Detroit Tigers (Lakeland) and Houston Astros (Kissimmee) are set to expire in 2016, and for the Blue Jays, Washington Nationals (Melbourne) and Atlanta Braves (Disney World, Orlando) in 2017. The state government has proposed setting aside $5-million (all currency U.S.) annually for facility improvement, to keep them in Florida.

At stake are tourism dollars and jobs, lawmakers say. “Aside from the emotionalism ... we need to focus on the economic development,” Eggers said. A report conducted by the Florida Sports Foundation at the depths of the recession in 2009 determined that spring training generated annual economic impact of approximately $750-million and more than 900 jobs, Dunedin’s parks and recreation director, Vince Gizzi, told the commissioners. The state has set a short-term goal for those figures to be $880-million and 2,000, respectively.

On the other side of the equation, economists curdle as such numbers are tossed around lightly as a beach ball on the nearby Clearwater spit. They argue that much of the revenue generated by spring training either leaves the state with the teams or goes directly to state government from sales taxes, that those baseball-inspired revenues would be exceeded by replacement tourism activities, and further that the desire for teams is more about the vanity of politicians than actual benefit to their communities.

“Here’s the issue – communities obviously have to borrow to finance some sort of bond issue to build these facilities,” said Roger Blair, chair of the University of Florida’s economics department. “The question becomes, is there sufficient additional economic benefit to offset the cost? Almost every study I’ve seen suggests, this is not a good investment.”

Dunedin is already committed to debt payment of $300,000 annually, drawn from hotel bed taxes through 2016 to pay off the 2002-03 bonds for renovation of the now-antiquated Florida Auto Exchange stadium and spring training facility, while its neighbour in Pinellas County, the city of Clearwater, owes $600,000 annually until 2021 to pay for the 2004 construction of the Philadelphia Phillies complex.

Jeff Mielke, executive director of the Lee County Sports Complex, argues that the costs are easily justified. Lee County persuaded the Red Sox to dismiss Sarasota’s courtship by building a miniature replica of Fenway Park, the 9,900-seat JetBlue Park at Fenway South, on a sprawling 100-acre facility that includes training diamonds. It also built 8,100-seat Hammond Stadium for the Minnesota Twins. The 2009 study determined that the two teams generate $47-million in spring training revenues including $12-million in shopping. More recently, a survey of 1,200 people determined that 60 per cent had travelled to Fort Myers because of the Twins, with 70 per cent magnetized by the Red Sox, he said.

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