DUNEDIN — The Pinellas County Commission pulled the final trigger Tuesday on dedicating $41.7 million in bed taxes for upgrades to the Toronto Blue Jays’ stadium and spring training facilities, a pledge that amounts to covering more than half of the project.
It is a milestone following years of uncertainty over whether the city could garner the funding to build a state of the art facility to keep the Blue Jays in Dunedin after 40 years.
In November, the city locked-in the team to stay for another 25 years with a new licensing agreement. But the county’s funding commitment to the $81 million renovation of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium and the training site at the Englebert Complex on Solon Avenue was the major piece needed before the development agreement can be signed, sealed and delivered.
The unanimous vote by the County Commission was enough to bring Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski to tears.
"I could not be more proud," Bujalski said Tuesday. "We have a huge quality of life here and no one thing makes our quality of life. It’s a combination of things. Spring training is part of that."
But the deal comes with serious risk, enough for City Attorney Tom Trask, hired financial advisors and the board of finance to warn against it.
According to the staggered agreement, the county will split its payment over several years: $1.3 million is available now, $14.8 million will be paid Oct. 1 and $25.6 million in fiscal year 2020. The money is coming from the 6 percent bed tax paid by visitors in hotels, motels and other overnight rentals.
Trask said "it was always presented" to him the county would pay the funds upfront. Staggered payouts in the contract pose serious risk if the county fails to pay up mid-construction, either because a sudden emergency like a storm or if state law changes to prevent bed tax dollars be used for stadiums.
City Manager Jennifer Bramley said she has unequivocal assurance the county "has never reneged on a funding agreement and does not intend to do so now."
The City Commission voted unanimously Monday to approve the agreement so the county could vote on it Tuesday. In a lengthy Sunday evening phone conversation with Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro, Bramley said he told her the team would look elsewhere if the approval of the funding agreement was postponed for more negotiations.
Commissioner Heather Gracy said the partnership is about trust.
"I’m nervous, but I will double down on Dunedin like I normally do, and I trust the county," Gracy said. "I certainly trust our partners on the field."
The county’s share for the stadium is the largest gift of bed taxes negotiated last year. It also contributed $26 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; $6 million for the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement; $5.5 million for Ruth Eckerd Hall; $1.9 million for the Countryside Sports Complex; and $495,000 for the Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex.
The city will pay $5.6 million for the project, which is already on hand. The state has pledged $13.6 million, contingent on the county’s agreement passing Tuesday, and the Blue Jays will contribute $20 million.
But the city will have to issue bonds for the state and team’s $33 million combined share, to be repaid over two decades. Bujalski said construction will be contracted in phases to keep up with the flow of funding.
The Blue Jays has also agreed to fund an additional $25 million over 25 years in maintenance, operations and repairs on facilities the city will own.
Bujalski said the city will now finalize a development agreement with the team and select an architect. She hopes construction can begin before the end of the year.
In approving the funding, County Commissioner Charlie Justice said while there’s debate over whether tax money should fund stadiums, the enterprise directly benefits residents.
Commissioner Dave Eggers, former mayor of Dunedin, said the Blue Jays’ commitment to permitting high school students to play in the stadium is a detail that sweetens the deal.
"All of these dollars we are spending on private ventures have public purpose," Eggers said. "It is about kids playing on these fields. It doesn’t happen everywhere. ... It is about the Blue Jays really embracing what our community is all about."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.