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Tuesday, Sep 18, 2018
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Ocala, Yankees reach agreement to move Tampa team

TAMPA — Tampa may be losing a minor league baseball franchise when the Tampa Yankees move to Ocala, but the city will be gaining a new concert venue.

New York Yankees officials confirmed Monday that the team’s Class A-Advanced minor league affiliate will likely play in a new Ocala ballpark in 2016. Plans for a $45 million stadium-entertainment complex near Interstate 75 and State Road 200 were to be unveiled at an Ocala City Council workshop Tuesday in the city 97 miles north of Tampa.

The Yankees have been contemplating moving their minor league team for several years. The team draws about 1,000 to 1,500 fans per game, and might fare better in a community without all the major sports franchises that call the Tampa-St. Petersburg area home.

Ocala is county seat of Marion County, which has a population of about 335,000.

“We’re a big baseball community so this would be a big deal for us,” said Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn.

George M. Steinbrenner Field will still be used during the summer months once the minor league team leaves. Preliminary plans are to hold concerts at the stadium as well as amateur baseball tournaments and other sporting events.

“If they do leave, it just gives us flexibility,” said Howard Grosswirth, vice president of marketing for the New York Yankees. “We won’t have to go around (the Tampa Yankees’) schedule; we’ll just work around the summer, hopefully bringing back concerts.”

The Yankees last held concerts at the stadium, then called Legends Field, in 1996. Grosswirth said the team will be working with the Tampa Bay Sports Commission to bring sporting events to the ball park.

“It doesn’t have to be baseball,” Grosswirth said. “It could be any number of different sports.”

With 11,000 seats, the ballpark would feature acts that draw fewer than the tens of thousands of fans at larger venues such as the Forum and Raymond James Stadium. But older groups with loyal followings could be a good fit. In May 2005, rock and country legends Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson played at Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater, spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies and home field for the minor league Clearwater Threshers.

The Tampa Yankees’ departure will have little impact on Hillsborough County revenues, said Bobby Silvest, spokesman for the Tampa Sports Authority, which manages Steinbrenner Field. The Yankees pay the authority about $100,000 a year to lease the county-owned stadium, plus a ticket surcharge that yielded about $135,000 in 2011, the latest figure available.

The surcharge is added to New York Yankee spring training tickets, but not to tickets for minor league games.

The move to Ocala still hinges on the city and Marion County building a ballpark. Guinn said the stadium complex would likely be financed by a half-cent sales tax increase that would expire after five years. The county commission would have to put the tax increase before county voters, probably in March.

The county passed two similar tax referendums, Guinn said. In 2007, Marion County voters approved a tax increase to build a $37 million jail and judicial center that opened last February. And in the 1980s, a Penny for Parks sales tax increase passed. Both tax increases were passed with a sunset provision.

“I think if you let (voters) know we’re going to spend that specific amount, and we’re true to our word, I think the taxpayers will trust the county commissioners to do what they said they were going to do,” Guinn said.

The Tampa Yankees became a team in 1994. In the hierarchy of the Yankees farm system, they rank one level above the Class A Charleston, S.C., RiverDogs, and below the AA Thunder of Trenton, N.J., and the AAA RailRiders of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Prior to the Tampa Yankees, the Tampa Tarpons played in the Florida State League from 1957 to 1987. The Tarpons were affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds from 1961 to 1987.

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