Will the Jays fly away?

Dunedin is the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training home — but for how long?

click to enlarge FORECAST CLOUDY: Doubts hover about whether the Blue Jays will stay in Dunedin past 2016. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
FORECAST CLOUDY: Doubts hover about whether the Blue Jays will stay in Dunedin past 2016.

The word probably most associated with the town of Dunedin is “quaint,” and that’s meant in the best way possible for those who visit or live in this Pinellas County community. It’s a lovely amalgam of great beaches, a robust arts scene, and what is universally described as a charming downtown.

And every March it’s also invaded by thousands of out-of-towners, many Canadians, who come to attend the spring training games of the Toronto Blue Jays, a tradition that began in early 1977.

But that tradition may come to an end in a few years, if informed speculation is correct. Published reports in the Toronto press have said that the Jays may bolt the only city they’ve ever trained in once their lease ends in 2016, joining the Houston Astros in a newly proposed ballpark to be built in Palm Beach Gardens along Florida’s east coast.

The question is: Will Dunedin even have a chance to compete to keep the team? And do the town’s residents really want to pay that price?

“The sense I get is no,” says longtime resident Bob Hackworth. “It’s almost like a defeatist attitude, like we can’t compete.” Hackworth was the mayor of Dunedin from 2005-2009, but was defeated in his attempt to win back the office last year against incumbent David Eggers.

But while Hackworth isn’t encouraged by his successor’s initial reaction to the recent news about the Jays, he also realizes that state money made available earlier this year by Governor Rick Scott and the Legislature isn’t earmarked just for the Palm Beach Gardens scenario. The $50 million allocated toward a two-team complex, and the $20 million applicable to a single-team stadium, can be used anywhere in the state. The money is meant to help Florida communities build or upgrade spring training facilities in an effort to persuade MLB franchises to stay in the Sunshine State and not run off to Arizona. (The funds will be provided as matching grants, meaning that a city that receives the money would be obligated to raise the same amount itself.)

Palm Beach Gardens City Councilman David Levy says that about eight months ago, representatives from the Astros (or as he calls them, “an unknown baseball team,” because they’re still under a lease agreement with Osceola County) initiated contact about their plan to move with another team when their lease is up after the 2016 season. That team was reportedly the Blue Jays.

The Jays are trying to be low-key about it all. In response to CL’s request for comment, a press spokesman emailed a link to a story published in the Toronto Star on July 12, in which Jays President Paul Beeston denied a report from Houston that claimed the Jays were as good as gone in 2017.

“We’re looking at our options for after [the lease in Dunedin expires],” Beeston told the Star. “And that’s one of the options.”

Dunedin Mayor Eggers says he hasn’t had any substantive discussions with the team since reports surfaced in March that the team was considering joining the Astros in Palm Beach Gardens. He says he and Beeston have now agreed to check with each other on a weekly basis before they ultimately sit down to hash out the Jays concerns in person.

Though no Jays official has been quoted saying anything disparaging about Dunedin, anonymous complaints have focused on the team’s current digs at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, especially the three-and-a-half mile distance between their major league and minor league facilities, described as “an annoying commute for team brass” in the Star.

But the new rumors have led those in the community to ask: How bad would it be for Dunedin if the Jays were to leave?

Marguerite Allison has run Marguerite’s Café & Catering near Florida Auto Exchange Stadium for the past 12 years. She says if the team departs for South Florida there could be an erosion of a steady and reliable snowbird contingent from Canada that stays in town far longer than the six weeks that the Jays play ball in the spring.

“It would greatly impact us if they were to leave, especially if they were to go to the other coast. Because they will pack up and go. If not right then, eventually, and those that are just visitors for several months will find lodging on the other coasts.”

Allison calls her business “a red-headed stepchild” because it doesn’t reside on Main Street, the main commercial drag in downtown. “Many of us are of the same thinking that we don’t want them to leave,” she says. “Some don’t think it’s a big deal, but I don’t know if they’ve been around here as long as some of us have.”

Regina Invandino, the owner of Cappuccino’s Altro Posto Café, says March is by far her busiest month of the year and doesn’t want to contemplate what it would mean not to have the Blue Jays in town. “I don’t think we’ll have a March,” she laments, sort of joking. “I mean, half of my customers come in from Canada.”

Nearly everyone contacted for this piece stresses how the area’s economy has stayed strong through the recent Great Recession. “A lot of good things are happening here,” stresses Lynn Wargo, Dunedin Chamber of Commerce president and CEO.

City Commissioner Ron Barnette confesses to having perhaps a romantic vision of the situation, saying there’s something to be said “for that continuation of a longstanding warm and wonderful relationship we’ve had.”

A similar scenario evolved when the Blue Jays made noises about leaving over a decade ago. But ultimately the city, state, Pinellas County and the Jays put together a $12 million package to build the Cecil P. Englebert Recreational Complex, the minor league training facility, which includes offices and five full fields.

But at least so far, the Blue Jays have played coy in their public pronouncements, hinting that they’re intrigued about having the state and the local community spend up to $100 million on a spanking new two-team complex in Palm Beach Gardens.

“The problem is that a lot of times, before [organizations] actually sit down, along comes a competitor of ours and shows them a shiny new toy, and perhaps answering all the things they could possibly think of — before they even actually decide what is critically important to them,” says Mayor Eggers. “And I think that’s what’s happened.”

Neil DeMausse says that because of the nature of spring training, it doesn’t really matter to teams where they play. The co-author of the book Field of Schemes and proprietor of a similarly named website says that there are way more communities in Florida and Arizona that could host spring training than there are major league teams. “So it’s really a seller’s market in that sense,” he says.

DeMausse is a noted critic of local governments funding taxpayer-supported parks for wealthy owners. But he concedes that at least one advantage of putting money into spring training facilities is that in many cases people are coming from outside the area to spend money, though spring break brings in lots of tourists who don’t give a fig about baseball. “How many are just going to the games because they’re there already, and how many just go for spring training?”

When it comes to what might happen in a post-Blue Jays world, Commissioner Ron Barnette has lots of ideas for using Auto Exchange Stadium, which at 5,509 seating capacity is one of the smaller spring training parks. “I’ve often thought about regional baseball championships, or women’s softball — they’re always looking for these places,” he says.

That’s exactly what happened in Indian River County, where “Dodgertown” resided in Vero Beach for 60 years before the L.A. Dodgers departed for Arizona in 2008. New opportunities arose after Minor League Baseball took over daily operations of the complex to conduct sports occupation training clinics, tournaments and off-season practice sessions (including, for the past three seasons, the USF Bulls football team).

But the Vero Beach Sports Complex (as it’s now called) may not be the best comparison, as the facility is spread out over 79 acres, whereas former mayor Hackworth speculates that the Jays’ demands might require “hundreds of acres” of land. “We are very limited in what space is available,” admits the Chamber’s Wargo.

Indian River County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan says his community tried to negotiate with the Baltimore Orioles after the Dodgers departed to play in Vero Beach, but that ball club ultimately got a better offer from the city and county of Sarasota.

“When you’re talking about $30-40-50 million dollar deals, or… Palm Beach Gardens giving $100 million, we’re just not anywhere in the range to compete with those kinds of tax dollars,” he admits.

Mayor Dave Eggers says the reality of the situation may not be known for another year or so, but that nobody should question Dunedin’s willingness to fight to keep the team — within reason. “It won’t be without controversy, it won’t be without some tough decisions, but I think anything worthwhile, nothing comes easy, right?”

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