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Spring training funds given a green light

The bill to finance stadium renovations - including facilities in Clearwater and Dunedin - goes to Gov. Bush.

By KYLE PARKS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Legislature on Friday passed legislation that may help Clearwater and Dunedin keep Major League Baseball spring training.

The House unanimously passed a bill that would give a combined $75-million in sales tax revenues to five Florida spring-training cities that are renovating or replacing their stadiums. Each city could get as much as $15-million.

The legislation passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday and now awaits the signature of Gov. Jeb Bush, who hasn't said whether he'll sign it.

Cities in Arizona and Nevada have courted teams in Florida's Grapefruit League, which has 20 teams playing at 19 stadiums.

The Philadelphia Phillies, who train in Clearwater, and the Toronto Blue Jays, who train in Dunedin, could be prime candidates to leave the state if they get an offer that included a new stadium. Each city has an aging facility that needs to be upgraded or replaced.

"This was one of my top priorities this session," said Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. "I think the bill hung around until the last minute just because people like to jerk me around."

Legislators and lobbyists pushing the bill fended off a bid by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to make the bill retroactive so the Rays could get some of the money. The Rays renovated Florida Power Park, home of Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, last year.

"They tried to do it, but we told them no, it would kill the bill," said Ron Book, a lobbyist who helped steer the bill through the Legislature.

To qualify for the money, a team must promise to stay in the facility for at least 15 years. The state would rank teams using several criteria: plans to build new stadiums would be given priority and consideration would be given to how long the spring training team has played in Florida.

Clearwater, which has played host to the Phillies for 53 years and wants to build a new stadium, would rank high on the list. Dunedin, which wants to renovate its facility, has been spring home to the Jays for 23 years.

"My constituents rang my phone off the hook on this bill," said Rep. John Morroni, R-Clearwater, whose district includes a part of Dunedin. "They weren't pitching the economic benefits. They just love baseball, and they don't want to lose it."

Clearwater officials plan to apply for $7-million to help pay for replacing Jack Russell Stadium. The new complex would cost $17-million to $20-million. To get the state funds, the city must match the $7-million, which it hopes to do with city and county funds.

In Dunedin, officials hope to spend about $3-million to renovate Grant Field and the Jays' practice facility. The city also would have to match the state funds it receives.

Last year, Gov. Bush vetoed a bill that would have given Vero Beach more than $7-million to renovate its stadium for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bush said that was among a number of bills he vetoed because they lacked statewide impact.

This year's bill would have an impact in five cities. If Bush signs it, cities would apply this fall, with selections made by Jan. 1.

A study last year by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council estimated that the nine spring-training teams in west-central Florida contributed $227-million to the state. Such studies often are criticized for how they estimate spending by fans, though.

"This is not a handout for sports teams," Morroni said. "We will more than get back what we put in from the economic impact of the teams staying."

-- Information from Times political editor Tim Nickens and Times files was used in this report.

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