City officials from past and present, county commissioners, supporters from the city of Clearwater, fans and members of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball organization all came together the morning of April 23 to celebrate a six-year effort that culminated in an agreement to keep the team’s spring training tradition in the city another 25 years. The ceremony was held at Dunedin Stadium on Douglas Avenue.

Vince Gizzi, city parks and recreation director, said it took several partners to make the $81 million restoration project possible: The County Commission contributed $41.7 million in tourist development tax dollars, the state doled out $13.7 million, the Blue Jays, $20 million, and the city $5.6 million of its 1-cent sales tax revenue.

“It’s another great day in the city of Dunedin. This is the biggest construction project ever undertaken by the city,” he told the crowd.

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Shown is a rendering of how the new Dunedin Stadium will look.

The newly refurbished stadium is expected to be completed in time for spring training of next year.

Gizzi credited the tireless efforts of Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski, who kept working, negotiating and bargaining, to come up with a viable package that would keep the team in Dunedin.

“She never gave up on the project through the tough times,” he said.

Bujalski said she was so excited about groundbreaking she couldn’t sleep the night before. After working through many challenges, Bujalski said the priority has always been to keep the team in Dunedin, while making sure the city got the right deal, it could afford, to make it happen.

“The biggest thing was what can we afford to do,” she said.

“I’m so excited about this day, I have no words to express it,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming. “

The mayor credited former Chamber of Commerce President Lynn Wargo, who died last year, with being an avid supporter of keeping the Blue Jays spring training in the city. She wooed the team to remain in Dunedin with yearly visits of chamber officials to Toronto and started a tradition city officials subsequently adopted.

The mayor also credited City Manager Jennifer Bramley’s 11th-hour negotiating and decision that resulted in an agreement that made the project finally come to fruition.

Shelby Nelson, director of Florida Operations for the Blue Jays, said the redesigned stadium will be impressive, while keeping the charm of the ball park.

When completed baseball fans will enjoy a long-desired boardwalk amenity, closer access to players, indoor and outdoor bar areas, improved concession areas, a video scoreboard and a perfect view from every seat.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said he came to show his support for the project because spring training is important to the economy of both Clearwater and Dunedin.

“We support each other because Pinellas County needs both teams’ spring training,” Cretekos said of the Philadelphia Phillies, who play in Clearwater, and the Blue Jays in Dunedin.

County Commission and Tourist Development Council Chairwoman Karen Seel said she was happy to support funding stadium improvements, noting one-third of people she has spoken with told her they come to Pinellas County and even moved here because of spring training baseball.

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Four of Dunedin’s mayors were at the event. From the left are Tom Anderson, Julie Ward Bujalski, Dave Eggers and Manny Koutsaris.

County Commissioner Dave Eggers, a former Dunedin mayor, said the day was the “culmination of a lot of work and perseverance” in what was “a tough lift. It’s been a long time coming through so many hurdles.”

It couldn’t have all happened without the support of local residents and those who support the stadium and team, he said.

Former Dunedin Mayors Manny Koutsaris and Tom Anderson, who supported stadium improvements and the team’s spring training efforts during their tenure, also attended the event.

Getting negotiations off first base

In December, City Commission approved a 25-year license agreement between the city and the Toronto Blue Jays for the construction and renovation of the Dunedin spring training facilities at the Vanech Recreation Complex on Solon Avenue and the Dunedin Stadium on Douglas Avenue.

Also that month, the city issued $32.56 million in bonds to fund a portion of the cost of the additional improvements to Player Development Complex and the Blue Jays Stadium, city reports said.

The $81.5 million project includes Blue Jays contribution of $20 million, the state of Florida’s $14.1 million, the county’s $41.7 million and the city’s $5.7 million.

A work session was held Sept. 26, 2016, at City Hall, the first time in two years that discussions and negotiations regarding the Toronto Blue Jays were discussed publicly with the City Commission and residents.

An open house for the public was held Sept. 27, 2016 at the Hale Activity Center. Experts were on hand with display boards and to answer the public’s questions.

Representatives from the city of Dunedin, Toronto Blue Jays, Populous Architects, Bonn Marketing Research Group and Nielsen Sports were on hand to provide presentations on possible stadium and training facilities, economic and media impact, traffic, parking and environmental protection, along with projected costs, timelines and funding.

Since September 2014, city staff had been in discussions with the Toronto Blue Jays under a confidentiality agreement.

“The unique atmosphere in Dunedin, intimate feel of the stadium, and large contingent of Canadians that attend games, have made it one of the “Top 5 Places to Watch a Spring Training Game” according to “Sports Illustrated,” city reports said.

However, compared to spring training facilities around the state of Florida and Arizona, the facilities are sorely lacking in premium spaces, fan amenities, and player development upgrades, city reports said.

City officials were up against the clock, too. The city’s license agreement was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2017, and includes two, five-year options at the team’s discretion.

In January 2014 then-Mayor Eggers’ remarks at a Dunedin Chamber of Commerce luncheon that negotiations between the Jays and city officials drew applause from chamber members. He said he shared their frustration at the lack of progress being made.

The Jays have been forthright, Eggers said, and are “very respectful of our interests of keeping Major League Baseball, primarily them, but we want Major League Baseball here.”

A study estimated that the annual economic value to the region of the Jays is $80.3 million, as opposed to the 2009 impact of $71.1 million.

However, some critics said those numbers were inflated. Opponents also have said the city should not spend money to subsidize a professional sports team.

Major League Baseball in Dunedin began in 1977 when the Toronto Blue Jays expansion team started its first Grapefruit League season. Dunedin has been the site for every Blue Jays spring training season since 1977, making Toronto the only major league franchise to have never changed spring training cities.

Dunedin Beacon Editor Tom Germond contributed to this story.