DUNEDIN — It was one step back, then one step forward Tuesday for city officials trying to broker a new spring training deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Officials awoke to news that a joint House-Senate budget subcommittee discussing a spring training proposal had touted the deal as one that would help finance a shared stadium for the Jays and Houston Astros in Palm Beach Gardens.
That came on top of frustrations that officials had spent two months unsuccessfully trying to secure a meeting with Jays president Paul Beeston. It was also the second time in as many months that the city had learned of the Jays' potential plans from the media.
But by Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Dave Eggers said he had finally spoken with Beeston and confirmed that negotiations between the Jays and Dunedin are still on. Beeston expects to visit Dunedin in the next two or three weeks.
"There have been some discussions with the east coast. There is some interest both ways ... but they are loyal to this area," Eggers said, recounting his conversation with Beeston. "He assured me he'd be down to talk about their needs and wants for the new contract period if they were to stay here."
The Jays, whose 15-year lease at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium expires in 2017, announced in a Canadian newspaper last month that they were unsatisfied with the distance between the stadium and training facilities, and were scouting opportunities for more modern digs elsewhere.
It's nearly four miles from the stadium to the training complex. Teams ideally want both in the same place.
Florida House and Senate Finance and Tax committee members working on a final round of budget negotiations agreed Monday evening to start setting aside $3.3 million a year starting in 2015 to help cities and counties woo Major League Baseball teams with new or improved stadiums.
Under the proposal, local governments would receive up to $50 million in state cash over 37½ years for ballparks that house two teams or up to $20 million for one-team facilities. Local governments would have to match the state contribution.
The state legislature will vote on the full budget next week.
Media reports said the potential deal was aimed at helping to finance a proposed stadium for the Jays and Astros, who currently train in Kissimmee. Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, said many teams are trying to move south when their leases expire to cut down on travel time.
"Two of the franchises that are looking to do a stadium down in southeastern Florida made a proposal that additional funds were necessary," Scripps Treasure Coast newspapers quoted Workman as telling committee members. After the meeting, he told a reporter who asked if the Astros-Blue Jays move to Palm Beach Gardens was a done deal, "I think so. I got that impression," he said.
However, Sen. Jack Latvala told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday, "I definitely know it's not a done deal. They're trying to recruit a couple of teams to come to Palm Beach Gardens, but there's been no agreement made."
Neither Workman nor the Jays' Beeston returned calls seeking comment.
Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist recently hired by the Jays and Astros to help secure state funding, stressed that Monday night's proposal wasn't aimed at any specific sites or teams, but was designed to keep or attract teams to Florida.
Ballard said he isn't involved in site selection plans for either team. Rather, his job is "to help pass a bill that would help keep a vibrant spring training system in Florida. And that's what this bill does."
He added: "Palm Beach Gardens is going to make a run at both teams. I know other locales will as well. It's a good thing to have spring training in your neighborhood, but you also have to have other teams in the area for them to play. So you're going to see competition for all these teams, as it should be."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected]