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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.

“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.

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