CLEARWATER — While attention is focused on building a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, tourism officials and two mayors urged Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday not to forget about spring training.
Two Major League Baseball teams train in Pinellas – the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin and the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater – and have a combined economic impact of millions of dollars, according to the cities and tourism figures.
Those numbers are particularly relevant regarding Dunedin, which is negotiating with the Blue Jays to build a new facility. The existing contract between the city and the team expires in 2017, and the Jays want out of the 26-year-old Florida Auto Exchange Stadium where they play now.
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said the confidential negotiations with the team will resume in the next couple of weeks when the Jays arrive in Dunedin, their only spring home since the team was founded in 1977.
Bujalski has estimated a new facility will cost about $50 million and has asked the county to join the city, the state and the team to pay for it.
The county has up to $16 million a year potentially available through its tourist tax added to hotel room rentals. Half is from the penny tax that was freed up when the bonds for Tropicana Field were paid last year, and half is from the sixth cent the county added to the tourist tax, also last year.
Not all of that money is expected to be devoted to baseball, and there will be competition for it. The county may set aside one penny for the Rays should they decide to stay in Pinellas. The Atlanta Braves also may ask for money for a spring training field that is as part of a proposed $662-million sports complex at the former Toytown landfill site. County Administrator Mark Woodard said there has been no request yet from the Braves.
But Bujalski said Dunedin would be back as soon as an agreement is negotiated with Blue Jays, no later than September. “We’re going to be moving very quickly,” she said
Also on the table are two pots of $20 million in state money available for spring training facilities. But the tourism officials said three teams potentially are vying for them – the Blue Jays; the Braves, looking for a new home perhaps in Pinellas; and the New York Yankees to renovate Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.
Pinellas commissioners were receptive to considering requests once they come and depending on details of actual proposals.
“We need a pitch first,” Woodard told commissioners. “The formal pitch has not yet come.”
Bujalski, Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and tourism officials spent about one hour showing commissioners the economic and community impact spring baseball has in the county.
Walter Klages, of Research Data Services, who does research for the Pinellas Convention and Visitors Bureau, pointed to a 2009 study by the Florida Sports Foundation that said spring training contributes $752 million annually in the state. He said that number has been questioned, but “it’s absolutely beyond $500 million.”
He figured spring training adds $21-22 million per team to the economy directly. It also means 30,000 to 40,000 hotel nights for visitors. “That’s significant,” he said.
John Webb of the Florida Sports Foundation said there are spin-off affects as well, noting hundreds or thousands of Canadians who have come to the area because of the Jays have bought residences here.
Bujalski has said the Jays have an $80 million impact on the region as a whole, and the city gets massive exposure in Canada because the Jays are the country’s only baseball team. She said 70,000 to 75,000 fans come to the spring games – 60 percent of them from out of the county or the state.
She added that Pinellas gets 4.2 million Canadian visitors a year, the highest number of international tourists by far. Brazil, with about 1 million, is second, she said.
In addition, she said the fields are used by high school and youth baseball programs, and host tournaments and other community events.
Cretekos reminded commissioners that spring training has a long history in Pinellas, dating to 1914. The Phillies have trained in Clearwater since 1947 and not only add to economy, which he previously has estimated at $120 million a year, but are involved in community events, many of them at Brighthouse Field where the team plays.
Their presence helped attract the Philadelphia Union Major League Soccer club to Clearwater, too, where it now holds its pre-season training.
The city built Brighthouse in 2004 for $33 million, which was divided evenly among the city, the county and the team.
With competition from Arizona, where 15 of the 30 Major League teams now train, Cretekos said it is important to hold onto Florida’s teams.