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A Times Editorial

Clearwater needs to read fine print on stadium deal

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001

The city of Clearwater and the Philadelphia Phillies now have on paper the details of their agreement to build a new baseball spring training stadium in Clearwater. A draft of the development agreement was released last week, and the City Commission is scheduled to consider approving the document this week.

But the commission should approach the complex, 92-page agreement as a work in progress, not a document ready for approval. Though negotiated by representatives of the city and the baseball team, in several sections it reads as if it were written for and by the Phillies.

At this point in the negotiations, plans call for construction of an open-air, natural-grass baseball stadium with 7,000 fixed seats and space for seating an additional 1,000 on a grassy outfield berm. The complex also would include a clubhouse, batting tunnels, office space, locker rooms, one full-size practice field, a practice infield and parking lots. The Phillies may also include a restaurant, a souvenir shop and a health club in the complex.

The Phillies' major league team would play its home spring training games there, and the Phillies' minor league team would play at the stadium. When no Phillies baseball was being played, the city could use the facility as a venue for entertainment such as concerts, and local school baseball teams could play games there. The city would own the complex, and the Phillies would pay a fee each year to use it.

Still to be decided is where the stadium will be built. The city's preferred site is an old landfill on the northwest corner of the intersection of Drew Street and Old Coachman Road, across Drew from the Clearwater campus of St. Petersburg Junior College. But a preliminary report on geotechnical borings at the site shows a moderate risk of sinkholes and the possibility that the debris buried in the old landfill could still be compacting. Although nothing in the report indicates that the site is unsuitable for a baseball stadium, special building techniques that would increase the cost might have to be used, and that means both the city and the Phillies might want to consider an alternate site.

The funding sources for construction of the complex are detailed in the draft development agreement: some $14-million from the state and the county; $5.7-million from the city; and from the Phillies, $3-million, plus whatever additional money is needed to finish the complex.

The responsibilities of the city and the Phillies for completing the project also are spelled out in the document. The city would perform a geotechnical investigation of the site and pay anything over $15,000 contributed by the Phillies; prepare the site for construction, including fixing any sinkhole or environmental problems; issue the bonds to build the stadium; and pay for necessary public infrastructure, such as roads, drainage and traffic signals.

The Phillies would perform an environmental investigation of the site at their cost, hire the architects and contractors, and build the complex.

The agreement also sets deadlines for each side at each stage of the work.

That's all well and good, but a close reading of the development agreement reveals a bothersome lack of control by the city in some areas while it seems to layer on protections for the Phillies.

For example, the agreement says the Phillies will prepare a site plan and written scope of work for the project and turn it in to the city. But the city will be allowed only 10 days to review the paperwork -- too little time for a thorough review -- and furthermore is permitted to review it only for compliance with the development agreement and the term sheet between the Phillies and the city. The city gives a thorough site plan review, including compliance with city codes, to other major development projects. Why not this one?

The same approach emerges in another section of the agreement, which states that the Phillies will submit conceptual drawings of the stadium complex to the city. But under the agreement, the city has no right of approval of the drawings or authority to ask for changes.

Why would the city tie its hands when this will be the city's stadium?

In the topsy-turvy world of professional baseball, there is no way of knowing how long the Phillies will call Clearwater their spring training home. The stadium could well outlast that relationship.

As they review the development agreement, Clearwater commissioners should keep in mind that although the stadium is being constructed to provide a better spring training home for the Phillies, it will be a public facility, probably built on land provided by the city, and regularly used by the Clearwater residents whose taxes will help build it.

And that means the city must maintain sufficient control to protect the public's interest.

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