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City leaders urge Pinellas to play ball
Pinellas commissioners explore value of spring training and baseball
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Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY
Fans enjoy watching a game at Bright House Stadium in Clearwater, where the Philadelphia Phillies play ball during spring training.
Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY
Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin is the site for spring training games when the Toronto Blue Jays are in town.
CLEARWATER – There’s a history of spring training of Major League Baseball teams in Florida and Pinellas County going back more than 125 years.

MLB teams have been training in Pinellas since 1914 when the St. Louis Browns came to St. Petersburg. Over the years, 11 teams have held spring training in the county, including the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Braves, New York Yankees, New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles.

Today, only two teams are left. Clearwater is home to the Philadelphia Phillies training grounds and Dunedin hosts the Toronto Blue Jays.

The value of baseball to the community is the question Pinellas County Commissioners tried to answer at a Feb. 16 work session.

“The whole thing about spring training boils down to what’s the value and economic impact this sport brings to the community,” said Walter Klages with Research Data Services, who pointed out the importance of spring training to the local tourism industry.

Each of the two teams that train in the county impact the county’s economy by more than $20 million a year, he said.

Value to the community

The commission asked the mayors of Clearwater and Dunedin to talk about the value of spring training to their communities.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said that the Philadelphia Phillies had been training in Clearwater since 1947. He said the team is part of the community.

“There is impact here you just don’t realize,” he said. “They give back to the community. You just don’t realize. They’re like family.”

He talked about how the relationship with the Phillies had helped the city team up with Major League Soccer, in particular the Philadelphia Union. He said two teams would be using the city’s facility for soccer spring training next year.

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne talked about the relationship between the city and the Phillies, saying there was “none better.”

Players and support staff add to the economy by buying and renting housing, as well as purchasing services and goods from local businesses. The team provides hundreds of jobs.

He said Bright House Field, which was built in 2004, is available for public use, such as graduation ceremonies, veteran’s events, Fourth of July and other community activities.

“And that’s just scratching the surface,” he said. “It (spring training) matters a lot in the fabric of our community.”

Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski also talked about the importance of spring training. She said the Toronto Blue Jays had trained in Dunedin for 38 years.

“It is the only home they’ve ever had,” she said.

She added that the Blue Jays were the only team in Canada, meaning the whole country focuses on Dunedin when the team comes to town. She said the free advertising for the destination to Canadians was “priceless.” In addition, the city has a number of full and part time residents from Canada that came for spring training games and wanted to come back on a more permanent basis.

She said the team gives to local charities, sponsors events and is one of the biggest supporters of youth baseball, allowing the use of Florida Exchange Stadium.

“The local high school kids are honored to play there,” she said.

The spring training contract with the Blue Jays expires in 2017 and the city is currently negotiating with the team to keep them in Dunedin. To fund the next deal, a partnership is needed between the city, the county and the state.

But there is one problem. The state is offering $20 million in matching funds. But state money is available to fund only two teams and three are in need, and one is the Blue Jays. The team that “misses out” will likely have to wait eight to 10 years for more money to be appropriated.

Bujalski said the city has until September to have a deal or proposal with the team and could be asking for state and county money at that time.

Money is a problem

Currently, a share of Tourist Development tax goes to pay the debt for construction of the Jays spring training facility. But that debt will soon be paid. In addition, the county’s obligation of tourist development tax dollars to pay for Tropicana Field is finished, freeing up money that could be spent elsewhere.

But county commissioners are reluctant to tie up that money when it might be needed to build a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. In addition, another proposal on the table for development of the former Toytown landfill site could result in a funding request to help construct a training facility for the Atlanta Braves and perhaps one other team.

The only thing certain is that the county doesn’t have the money to fund three baseball facilities.

“We’re in the batter box and want to take a swing, but you haven’t had a pitch yet,” said County Administrator Mark Woodard.

He said any decision about spending Tourist Development tax revenue “will have to follow the pitch.” He said funding baseball is a large investment.

“We’re just in the first inning, but the next inning is coming,” he said.

“The first pitch is coming sooner than people in this room think,” said Commission Chair Charlie Justice.

“You don’t have to swing on the first pitch,” Woodard countered.

“But what if it is a soft pitch right over the plate,” Justice asked.

Commissioner Ken Welch said it made sense not to encumber money that might be needed if the Rays ask the county to become a partner in building a new stadium.

“That ball is still in play,” Commissioner Karen Seel said, adding that the commission had no idea of the “ask” at this time, so any decision about the Rays would be “premature.”

“As responsible partners we would like to do all,” Welch said.

But he said there was a “capacity issue.”

Commissioner Dave Eggers said if the commitment to the Rays still existed, the commission needed all the groups in line for funding to know that.

Justice suggested that staff make a chart showing the money available and potential requests for funding.

Woodard said when the 2016 budget was approved, it included 1 percent of the tourist development tax going to pay the debt on Tropicana Field, which has since been paid. Currently, that money along with a newly enacted 6th cent in tourist development tax is going into a reserve fund. It cannot be spent without the commission’s approval.

Some discussion revolved around shared facilities and the importance of the proximity of teams for scheduling games.

“I would highly encourage when looking at the stadium needs to have joint talks,” Seel said.
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