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Baseball Keeping the Blue Jays’ annual coastal migration to Dunedin

Toronto Blue Jays warm up during baseball spring training in Dunedin, Fla., on Sunday, March 1, 2015.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Spend a little time in this funky little enclave perched on Florida's Gulf Coast and you can't help but notice the heavy Canadian presence.

That's true as you pass through the compact downtown core, where a big "Welcome Back Blue Jays" sign is prominently mounted in the front window of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce. Inside the chamber's offices, T-shirts, ball caps and other merchandise bearing the Major League Baseball team's maple-leafed logo are available for purchase.

You'll find even more of that over at the Bobby Mattick Training Center, where visiting fans congregate to get an early glimpse of this year's team. Craig Forrest, for example, is anything but a subtle Blue Jays fan from Canada: The 40-year-old from Ottawa is wearing a red Blue Jays jersey with number 19 on the back, in honour of Toronto slugger Jose Bautista. On closer inspection, you can spot the right-fielder's autograph in black ink on the back.

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Mr. Forrest is holding a black bat that bears the signatures of more Toronto players. "And this was just from yesterday," he said gleefully, digging through a plastic bag and producing a heavily inscribed baseball.

"It was kind of a bucket-list thing for me," said Forrest, who is in Florida with his wife for nine days and is visiting the Blue Jays spring camp for the third straight year.

Described by one long-time resident as being like "Mayberry with a twist," Dunedin's laid back and a little hippie-dippy, certainly not your typical conservative small town. But it's dependable: For the 39th straight year, it's is home to the Blue Jays' spring training camp. It is the only spring training site the team has ever had.

It has been a fruitful relationship. Dunedin, with a population of about 36,000, supplies the warm weather, nearby beaches and civic infrastructure, and the Blue Jays attract fans who buy not just tickets and hot dogs but also meals and hotel rooms and souvenirs. The chamber of commerce doesn't offer exact numbers, but the economic impact on Dunedin and Pinellas County of spring-training baseball and related tourism is estimated to be up to $50-million (U.S.) each year. That's not a small consideration in a county where the median household income is $43,616.

Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing arm, said that a record 3.7-million Canadians flocked to the Sunshine State in 2013, more visitors than from any other country. It's not known how many of them visit the Dunedin area, but local officials want as many of them as possible. So when the Blue Jays started hinting two years ago that they were growing tired of the city's aging facilities and were considering other locations, a chill came over the business community here. The Blue Jays' lease expires in 2017, and at one point, they were close to an agreement with the Houston Astros to share a facility in West Palm Beach, on the other side of the state.

But team president and chief executive officer Paul Beeston, who will retire after the upcoming season, said the Jays have had a change of heart. Although things are far from finalized, it appears the Blue Jays and Dunedin are working on an agreement to develop a new training complex that will keep the team in town for another 30 years.

The new facility – with a bigger ballpark and updated amenities – could cost anywhere from $50- to $80-million, according to various projections. The project would be underwritten by the state, Pinellas County, the city and the Blue Jays; no one's saying how much each partner will pay, but the county is expected to be the biggest contributor.

In exchange, the baseball team will sign a long-term lease to play there. The Blue Jays have agreed to a confidentially clause with Dunedin that bans discussions of their negotiations. But city officials and business leaders indicated in recent interviews that the resolve is there to get new facilities built.

Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski told the Globe and Mail the Blue Jays could be in a new home within three years.

"That's the hope," she said. "Our agreement is up in 2017, so we want to have a deal, at least the majority of a deal, struck before Mr. Beeston retires. And get working immediately."

It hasn't been announced, but the Blue Jays have already held discussions with the Philadelphia Phillies about sharing Bright House Field in neighbouring Clearwater should construction prevent Toronto from playing spring games in Dunedin.

Beeston left little doubt about the team's intended direction Friday morning when he addressed a breakfast meeting at the Dunedin Golf Club that was attended by about 50 prominent Florida politicians and business leaders. Among them were Jack Latvala of the State Senate, Mayor Bujalski and the entire City of Dunedin commission, and George Cretekos, mayor of Clearwater.

"We're ready to reaffirm our vows," is how Mr. Beeston jokingly began his speech to the gathering.

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In 1976, when the Blue Jays were granted a franchise to begin play the following MLB season at a refurbished Exhibition Stadium, one of the team's first big tasks was to find a location where the club could conduct the six weeks of spring training that traditionally precede the 162-game regular season.

"There were three or four places that actually came forward and expressed interest in bringing us to their city," Mr. Beeston said during an interview here last week.

The Blue Jays announced on Aug. 26, 1976, that Dunedin would be their spring home. The town had just what the Blue Jays required – a small stadium that was in need of a tenant, and a community that was hungry for a Major League presence, even if the franchise was based way up in Canada.

"The Blue Jays have become part of our history," said Gabriella Mullins, a Toronto native who moved to Dunedin in 1996 and saw a business opportunity based on the Blue Jays' popularity. She arranged the financing to construct a 76-room Holiday Inn Express & Suites in the downtown core, which opened in 2001.

"The city just lights up when the Blue Jays are here," Mullins said. "Everything's busy, everything's crazy busy."

Grant Field, as Dunedin's original ballpark was called, is located near the downtown core. To welcome its exciting new tenant, the city spruced up the old park with new seats, fences and clubhouses. Even with that, Grant Field only had seats for about 2,000, the clubhouse was cramped, and trailers had to be brought in to house the team's front office staff.

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"It was kind of a county-fair type of stadium at that time," Mr. Beeston recalled. "Wood grandstands and everything. But it was ours, and it was the first place."

Ms. Bujalski, a lifelong resident, recalls playing shortstop on the Little League team that played at Grant Field before the Blue Jays moved in. She claims she had a rocket arm back then, but when she threw out the first pitch at Toronto's spring training home opener against Pittsburgh yesterday, she one-hopped it. "I was the second girl ever to play in Dunedin Little League on an all-boys team," Ms. Bujalski said.

She said she was a fan from the start. "I have a baseball at home signed by the first team of the Blue Jays that were here," she said. "So I've grown up with this."

Due to space constraints at the downtown stadium, players work out for a couple weeks each February at the Bobby Mattick Training Center before the start of spring training games. The training centre is located in a residential area about two kilometres north of the stadium.

In 1990, at a cost of $2.4-million, a new ballpark known as Dunedin Stadium was built at Grant Field. Seating capacity soared to about 6,100, but the original field and team clubhouses remained the same.

In 2000, the Jays signed a lease extension for 15 years, effective in 2002, coincident with a $12-million renovation that added a new two-story building behind the right field fence to house a new Blue Jays clubhouse.

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In 2010 the city sold the naming rights, and Dunedin Stadium was rechristened Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

Like most teams, the Blue Jays would like a single-site stadium and training complex, but it appears they will retain the existing two-site arrangement if they remain in Pinellas County. And according to Mr. Beeston, that won't be such a drawback.

"Although in an ideal situation we'd prefer everything to be on one site, I don't think it's necessary," said Beeston, noting that former manager Bobby Mattick always advocated the two-site approach. "Bobby always [liked] that the minor-leaguers aren't looking over the fence to find out what the major leaguers are doing," Mr. Beeston said. "With two sites, the minor-leaguers have got their own area, they can be focused, they can be developed. Same with the coaches."

The Blue Jays have already provided the city with a list of what they would require in a new facility. Mr. Beeston did say that the team would like to see a new stadium that could seat 7,000.

The problem for Dunedin is there isn't an available property big enough to accommodate an all-in-one facility. According to Ms. Bujalski, about 40 acres is required to build a functional combined facility when you include parking; Florida Auto Exchange Stadium is contained on about 25 acres.

The mayor did confirm that the city is evaluating four sites for possible development, including the two locations that the Blue Jays are already using. She said that the Mattick Center might be large enough to house an all-in-one complex, but it's not in the city proper, and it's in a residential area where neighbours might not take too kindly to a sudden influx of baseball fans.

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The betting is that the city will eventually decide to tear down the current stadium and building on its footprint. That would keep it downtown, and make local merchants happy by maintaining foot traffic before and after games. The second development phase would involve refurbishing the Bobby Mattick Center.

"I think everybody's preference is for the stadium to stay where it is, just because the neighbourhood's used to it being there," Ms. Bujalski said. "[The Jays] are part of the family there. And their proximity to downtown is just phenomenal. It's a hopping little spot, and it's well known in this county. Spring training really feeds into the success of the downtown."

At the Mattick Centre, Dave Ryder, 70, and his wife Marion, who are from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., took in a Blue Jays workout the other day. Both are retired and have been coming to Dunedin for 13 winters – their current stint has lasted five months.

They stay in a rented condo and while away the time playing golf, taking in the odd Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game and checking out the Blue Jays during spring training. Mr. Ryder is wearing a white Blue Jays T-shirt on this particular day, bearing Mr. Bautista's name and number.

When asked what it was about Dunedin that kept them coming back, Ms. Ryder provided a simple answer: "Everything."

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