Pinellas County may have another baseball stadium controversy brewing, as the Toronto Blue Jays are signaling the team wants to explore other options for spring training.
The team, which has been in Dunedin since its first season in 1977, still has four years left on its contract to play at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. But team officials told Mayor Dave Eggers during a “casual phone conversation” last week they are exploring their options. Their main complaint is that the practice field is nearly four miles from the stadium on Douglas Avenue, he said.
“The importance of having the practice field near the stadium has been elevated, or at least that’s what we’ve heard,” he said.
In a town and county that’s essentially built-out, finding space to build new practice fields near the stadium could be challenging, but Eggers said city staff is scrambling to find solutions and present them to the City Commission on March 21. That would require 50 or 60 acres of land, said Dunedin Parks and Recreation Director Vince Gizzi.
“It’s going to be a stretch to find a property that size in Dunedin,” he said. “I’m not saying it can’t be done. … We really haven’t looked at every property in the city to see how that would come together.”
Team executives have said that, in a perfect world, they’d be able to stay in Dunedin but that they need to “keep up with the Joneses,” as Jays senior advisor Ken Carson put it last month.
Eggers said no formal talks have happened between the city and the team yet, but the city wants to do what it can to keep the team.
“We’ll certainly do our best to accommodate the facility, within reason,” he said.
Funding for any stadium upgrade would likely come from city and county coffers, and, if possible, state matching dollars geared toward helping Florida communities keep their spring training teams. Gov. Rick Scott is backing legislation that would establish a permanent trust fund aimed at providing money to help.
“It’s all about retaining the teams,” said Nick Gandy, a spokesman for the Florida Sports Foundation. “Dunedin would certainly be eligible.”
Dunedin’s stadium is one of the older spring training sites in Florida, Gandy said. The stadium was built in 1990 and renovated in 2002, according to the Florida Grapefruit League.
Whereas the Boston Red Sox hosts preseason games in a Fort Myers stadium with enough seats and parking spaces to accommodate nearly 11,000 fans, the Blue Jays play in one with about 5,500 seats.
“I parked in a guy’s yard,” Gandy said. “Because it’s in a neighborhood, parking is limited.”
Teams look for a range of amenities, including wide concourses and expanded bathroom and vending facilities, Gandy said – not something you’d find in an older venue.
If the team seeks an updated stadium elsewhere, the Philadelphia Phillies, who play in Clearwater, would be the only team left in Pinellas County. The Blue Jays’ departure also likely would leave a financial void for Dunedin. The state has never studied the economic impact individual facilities have, but statewide, it tops $750 million annually.
“If you averaged it out, it would be a $30 to 50 million impact to the community,” Gandy said.
Teacher Lorraine MacArthur, who is visiting from Toronto, said the team puts Dunedin on the map for the families of many of the schoolchildren she teaches families that would otherwise go elsewhere.
“I know many children who come for the games during March break,” she said. “They come just for that.”
For Marguerite Allison, who runs a café less than a block from the stadium, losing that steady stream of Canadians would cut deeply into her bottom line – and that of the community as a whole.
“We would lose a great deal of revenue,” she said.
“Canadians stay for an extended period of time. They rent, and some own and pay taxes and spend their money in this area. I stand to lose a lot of business since I am right next door.”