Clearwater is the latest Tampa Bay city to seek public money to keep its baseball team — $69 million of it

Fans watch a spring training game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies at Spectrum Field in Clearwater. The Phillies are seeking a $79 million renovation of the stadium and practice facilities.  (MONICA HERNDON   |   Times )
Fans watch a spring training game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies at Spectrum Field in Clearwater. The Phillies are seeking a $79 million renovation of the stadium and practice facilities. (MONICA HERNDON | Times )
Published June 7 2018
Updated June 8 2018

CLEARWATER ó When Spectrum Field opened to sports fans in 2004, the $34 million venue was lauded as a pristine major league baseball stadium more than equipped to keep the Philadelphia Phillies spring training program going strong.

Now amid an anticipated property tax hike to resolve a budget deficit, and as the cityís legacy downtown waterfront revitalization project remains almost entirely unfunded, Clearwater is looking to secure public dollars to renovate the stadium and surrounding complex.

The city plans to request $40 million in Pinellas County Tourist Development Council funds, apply for a $13.7 million state grant and use $16 million in Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue to pay for a proposed $79.9 million overhaul. Under preliminary terms reached Thursday, the team would contribute $10 million, pay any additional cost overruns and agree to play 20 more years after the current contract expires in 2023. The Phillies have been training in the city since 1946.

"Anyone who does not believe that the Philadelphia Phillies being in Clearwater, if they believe that does not have a major economic impact on our city, they are sadly mistaken," Council member Hoyt Hamilton said. "It is a tremendous asset, and this is an investment in that asset to make sure we continue to reap the benefits of them being here."

The city has gone without a tax-rate increase for nine consecutive years. But spending on capital projects amid recovery from the 2009 recession, coupled with unforeseen costs from the state this year, has resulted in a $160 million deficit through 2028, according to financial consultants. The council gave City Manager Bill Horne its blessing to factor up to a 20 percent property tax increase in next yearís budget in lieu of layoffs or cutting services.

The city is also in the design stage of its $55 million waterfront redevelopment plan Imagine Clearwater. Although officials set an expedited deadline of 2021 to have most of the 66 acres west of downtown reshaped into a thriving park and retail space, only $5.5 million has been identified to fund the project.

It is the second time in a year the county has been tapped for stadium funding. In April it allocated $41.7 million in bed taxes, a 6 percent tax paid by visitors in hotels, motels and other overnight accommodations, for the $81 million renovation of the Toronto Blue Jaysí spring training facilities in Dunedin. The Blue Jays pledged $20 million while the city paid $5.6 million and a state grant brought $13.6 million.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pinellas County commits $41.7 million to Blue Jays Stadium

But professional baseball and player development has changed in the past 14 years, prompting a need to step up, said Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar, who has led the department since 1999 and negotiated the 2003 Phillies contract.

Plans for the overhaul at Carpenter Complex, which houses four training fields, include building a 160-bed dormitory to house staff and players, many from Latin American countries.

Teenage players from academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela currently stay in hotels on U.S. 19, Dunbar said. An in-house dorm, he said, will help them better assimilate to the culture and mold them as top-notch athletes with full nutrition programs and mentoring.

The complex is also slated for renovations to its clubhouse, a second story of office space and a coachís locker room, improved minor league food service facilities and dining area, and player support facilities.

Proposed upgrades for Spectrum Field include expanded office space, improved fitness and training space, an expanded dining area, climate controlled club level, and field improvements like new seats and air conditioning replacements.

John Timberlake, director of Florida operations for the Phillies, said the team is dedicated to Clearwater but needs modernized facilities as its organization grows.

"Weíve literally just continued to grow and weíve outgrown our space we have," Timberlake said.

"Thereís nothing in this in any way designed to create a Taj Mahal type project at all. Itís literally keeping up with the changing times."

Without the state and county dollars in hand, however, City Attorney Pam Akin warned the city is taking a risk in this preliminary stage.

If the city cannot secure the government funding by Dec. 31 and the Phillies choose to walk away, the city will be obligated to repay what the Phillies have spent on engineering and design work, estimated to be $2.5 million.

And while the city is committing $16 million of Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue for its share, it has only $14.7 million currently dedicated to athletic facilities under the Penny allocation now.

Because that $14.7 million is earmarked for other facilities beyond Spectrum Field, itís unlikely the whole pot would be used for the Phillies project, requiring more to be diverted from other projects, Assistant City Manager Jill Silverboard said.

Timberlake said the team is willing to work with the city if efforts to secure funding stretch past Dec. 31. Asked what the team would do if the county and state deny the funding, which accounts for two-thirds of the cost, Timberlake said "thatís not really for me to speculate."

Dunbar estimates the annual economic impact of the Phillies in Clearwater is $125 million. He notes facilities are used nearly year-round and are home to operations for seven minor league teams and a rehabilitation headquarters.

The economic impact of athletic facilities are often inflated because itís difficult to determine where each patron is coming from and whether they are in town only for the sports event, according to sports economist Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at College of the Holy Cross. He also said the impact of year-round players and staff is minimal.

"My rule of thumb is take whatever number the booster is giving and move it one decimal point to the left," Matheson said.

Attendance for last yearís spring training averaged 7,700 fans per game, down from the peak of 10,000 per game seen around 2011 when the team was highly competitive, Dunbar said.

Under the contractís preliminary terms, the team would pay the city $180,000 a year in rent and $1 per ticket sold to offset utility costs. Under the current contract, the city receives $274,000 in rent and 60 cents per ticket to offset the cityís $5.6 million share of Spectrum Field construction, Dunbar said.

The five City Council members, City Manager Bill Horne, Dunbar and a contingent of representatives from the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Development Council were in Philadelphia this weekend for their annual pilgrimage to their baseball partnerís turf.

Mayor George Cretekos said while much attention is given to the value of the Tampa Bay Rays on the area, the impact of the Phillies and Blue Jays franchises on the region should not be overlooked.

"They have a tremendous impact, seen and unseen, and itís not just the 15 days or 16 days the Phillies are in fact playing a game at Spectrum Field," Cretekos said. "It is a year-round activity of one kind or another. Same with the Blue Jays. If they were to have left Pinellas County, that would have been a huge void."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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