“A significant amount of people make regular visits because of spring training, and some have bought second homes here to be close to their teams,” Mielke said. “Everyone can cite a study to support their viewpoint and that’s all I’ll say [about the economists’ opposing arguments]. There is significant economic impact, and it’s also about pride of community. I know a lot of people from Vero Beach who were devastated when the Dodgers left for Arizona. Having major-league teams train here is a model of success for us. They draw people to your city, and you lose a lot of value when they leave.”
The Sports Foundation’s report and others like it are “simply not honest,” says Philip Porter, professor of economics at the University of South Florida. He says the economic-impact studies are derived by assigning a factor of two to sales-tax revenues, without considering whether those revenues would have been generated otherwise.
“If you listen to their rhetoric, when an economist says there’s no economic impact, you hear politicians bang for ‘cultural amenities’ and they say the advertising is priceless,” Porter says. “This isn’t advertising – it’s exposure from media reporting. Listen, I would love to have them all here so long as it doesn’t cost us anything. But there’s no reason at all to subsidize pro sports.”
He says evidence has shown that when a team leaves a city, revenues rise. When the Dodgers left Vero Beach, it was estimated that the annual loss in terms of economic impact would be $30-million; since then, news reports say the city has recovered a substantial portion of tourism by marketing the former spring training facility to high school and college teams, with the impact spread over longer periods rather than being concentrated in the short spring training period.
In Dunedin, Eggers plans to meet with Jays president Paul Beeston as early as Sunday, and the city will reconvene in April to formalize the preliminary agreement they struck with nary a word of dissent on Thursday night – to form a project committee, search for an outside consultant, obtain Clearwater’s economic-impact study as ammunition in the coming debate, and to conduct a needs assessment.
From the Blue Jays’ perspective, while Beeston dutifully points out the situation has never held back the team, a tour of the competition’s situations throughout Florida makes it easy to appreciate the desire to improve the club’s spring training compound.
The Phillies, dance partners in the 1993 World Series and long-time spring training neighbour, got a new 7,000-seat stadium that features a berm in the outfield with room for another 1,500 and with the see-in bullpens cut into it. A wrap-around concourse affords views of the playing field, Frenchy’s Tiki Bar is stationed near the left-field foul pole, families gather in picnic areas, a small upper deck provides corporate suites, fans can feast on a variety of food offerings in the concessions, not least the classic Philly cheese steak.
An hour’s drive to the south, Sarasota lost the White Sox but recovered by drawing the Orioles from Fort Lauderdale, renovating 7,500-seat Ed Smith Stadium, a pastoral delight with a beige stucco interior, green seating and O’s-orange trim, with practice diamonds shaped to the dimensions of Camden Yards. In the left-field stands, fans order buckets of Bud and down crabcake sandwiches at long narrow tables under the Florida sunshine.
The Jays have few such amenities by comparison. The stadium seats only 5,500 and while only a few franchises may regard spring as a profitable enterprise, the Jays are nonetheless leaving money on the table. The only major concession, behind the stands, is under a tent dubbed the Canadian Grill. Bathrooms and souvenir shops are crammed, and there’s precious little parking. Rather than having the convenience of practice fields on the same site – there’s a school behind the left-field fence, a library beyond the right-field fence – coaches piled into cars for the six-kilometre trip to the practice area on Thursday to watch pitcher Ricky Romero work in a minor-league game.
And so, the time has come.
Directly to the south of Fort Myers, the upscape community of Naples has never been a spring training site and may become a candidate for the Blue Jays and other franchises with expiring leases. The Jays could partner with the Braves, Nationals, Mets or Astros on a dual-team facility, as the Dodgers did with the White Sox in Arizona, and the Cardinals and Marlins did in Jupiter, Fla. Beeston believes snowbirds are migrating southward to the Naples/Fort Myers area, and Naples has never been host to a spring training team. Mielke says the city will aggressively pursue one. Dunedin will inevitably have rivals for the Jays’ affection, and it’ll cost millions to keep them in the city.
Blair, the professor in economics, is reminded that future facilities will also be used by local teams, including high schools and little league teams. “I played high school baseball on fields the Blue Jays would be afraid to walk on,” he said.