Dunedin plotting ways to keep Blue Jays for spring training
City commissioners adopted a strategy Thursday night aimed at keeping the Toronto Blue Jays in town for spring training after the team's current lease ends in 2017.
The strategy broadly outlines the city's approach as well as the need to bring other interested groups in on the process but lacks specifics on whether a new stadium should be built, what it would look like or where it would be located.
“It's really just a proclamation of our efforts to keep the Blue Jays,” said Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers. “(To say) 'let's work ourselves ragged to make this thing happen.'”
The team, which has trained in Dunedin since the franchise started in 1977, has been an economic draw for the small town, and the city and team generally have enjoyed a good relationship over the years.
That might be why city officials were caught off guard when team executives said they're considering upgrading their spring training digs and leaving Dunedin.
Mayor Dave Eggers said he routinely phones team management. In March, he said, they unexpectedly told him they weren't satisfied with the facility and would be looking elsewhere.
Just weeks prior, with a fresh spring training session on the horizon, Blue Jays senior adviser Ken Carson stood in front of the stadium praising Dunedin.
“We love Dunedin,” he said that day February. “The city has been great for us.”
At the time, he said, the only way the team would consider moving was if the facility were inadequate for the team's physical training needs.
“We have to do what is right to keep up with the Joneses,” he said then.
Days later, Gov. Rick Scott announced he wants to set up a permanent trust fund slated for facility upgrades to help keep spring training teams in Florida. With approval from the Legislature, the money would go to cities after a team signed a lease agreeing to play there for a set amount of time.
On the heels of that announcement, and shortly after the mayor's call with the team, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that the Blue Jays were going to look at other facilities. Among team officials' key concerns was the more than three-mile distance between the team's practice facility and the field, now known as Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
The team retained Tallahassee-based lobbyist Brian Ballard on April 1, according to a state report. Ballard's long client list also includes the New York Yankees and the Houston Astros.
Even before news broke that the team may fly the coop, the city was gearing up to start negotiating on the stadium, Eggers said, but the team's threat to leave meant the city had to “kick start” its strategy a few weeks early.
Although the plan adopted Thursday by the city council lacks hard numbers, it outlines a need for a coordinated effort to keep the team at all levels of government, something that's already occurring.
Eggers said other cities — especially Clearwater, which hosts the Philadelphia Phillies in the spring — ought to be onboard because the Blue Jays are one of a handful of teams that trains in the Tampa Bay area. To lose one, he said, would be a major blow to the region's status as a spring training destination.
“If a team feels like they're important not only to a city, but to an entire area, it matters more,” Eggers said.
Any effort to build a new stadium probably would require financial help from the county.
Pinellas County Commission Chair Ken Welch said the county doesn't want to lose any of the teams that hold spring training in Pinellas.
“I think it's imperative that we keep what we have, and possibly add (more teams) to it down the road,” Welch said.
Welch chairs the county Tourist Development Council, which chooses projects that a 5 percent hotel room sales tax will fund. Some of that money will be freed up in 2015 when a debt service on Tropicana Field will be paid off.
But competition for those dollars will be tough.
“It's a finite resource,” Welch said. “And we can't fund everything.”
Eggers said the city will meet with the team for more discussions in two weeks.