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New spring training law has Clearwater, Dunedin rejoicing

By DEBORAH O'NEIL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 3, 2000


Clearwater and Dunedin officials on Friday hailed a state spring training law as a significant new tool to help them secure long-term deals with the Philadelphia Phillies and the Toronto Blue Jays.

The measure, signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush late Thursday, makes each city eligible for up to $15-million over 30 years to help pay for building or renovating publicly owned baseball facilities. The money for the program will come from sales taxes paid to the state by Major League Baseball teams. Cities must match the state dollars, but the program significantly eases the burden of paying for the improvements, estimated at $4-million for renovations in Dunedin and $20-million to build a new stadium in Clearwater.

"We are optimistic this could be a very viable funding source for us," said Dunedin City Manager John Lawrence. "It's a major improvement in the picture."

The program has been set up to give priority to communities that have long-term contracts that are about to expire with teams. Dunedin and Clearwater top that list.

"I hope Dunedin and Clearwater will put this mechanism to good use to keep our teams," said Sen. Jack Latvala, who introduced the bill. "It certainly puts the ball in everyone's court locally to make it happen. We've given them everything they asked for."

In the 1999 legislative session, Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a bill that would have provided Vero Beach with $7.5-million to keep the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bush said he would only support projects that had a statewide benefit. His veto made headlines at a time when Arizona and Las Vegas were looking to persuade Florida teams to relocate from their spring training homes.

In response, Florida communities, which historically have bargained behind closed doors to lure away one another's teams, banded together as the Florida Grapefruit League Association to lobby for passage of the new bill. The state is home to 20 Major League Baseball teams that play at 19 venues south of the Interstate 4 corridor.

In this legislative session, the association's message to the governor was that spring training is a statewide industry that pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into Florida's economy. Therefore, they said, communities should not have to foot the bill by themselves when it comes to spending millions for upgrades to keep the teams.

The bill's passage will spark a flurry of talks in both cities. To qualify for the dollars, the cities must have signed contracts that guarantee the teams will stay for a minimum of 15 years.

The deadline to apply for the first round of money, a total of $2.5 million, is Oct. 1. The state will award the money in January. Six other communities are expected to apply as well, said Keith Ashby, Clearwater's general services administrator and the president of the Florida Grapefruit League Association. Ashby said the teams hashed out who would seek money in the first year.

"We had what I would call a vociferous and useful debate and it was understood not everyone needed to apply the first year," Ashby said. "It was understood this would be some competition between the venues. It was also understood certain cities had greater needs than others."

Getting a long-term contract is not expected to be a problem for Clearwater. The Phillies have repeated their commitment to staying in the community. The team wants a new stadium to replace the aging Jack Russell Stadium. Clearwater has already begun working on its application, Ashby said.

Dunedin officials have set the first of what they expect will be a summer-long series of negotiations with the Blue Jays for June 27. The team has been waffling for years about its intentions. Jays officials on Friday remained noncommittal but praised the bill.

"We're still looking at our options, but obviously this will make the city a lot more aggressive," said Ken Carson, the Jays' Florida operations director. "Obviously, they're going to put some due pressure on us to make a decision."

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