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Toronto Blue Jays explore spring training move from Dunedin

The Toronto Blue Jays have pledged to remain at Dunedin’s Florida Auto Exchange Stadium until their lease expires in 2017.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2009)

The Toronto Blue Jays have pledged to remain at Dunedin’s Florida Auto Exchange Stadium until their lease expires in 2017.

DUNEDIN — The Toronto Blue Jays will pursue an opportunity to share a two-team spring training stadium with the Houston Astros on Florida's east coast and see if it pans out before talking to Dunedin about a contract renewal, Mayor Dave Eggers said he learned Friday in a phone conversation with Jays president Paul Beeston.

Dunedin officials had been frustrated by their inability to get information or even a call back from Beeston following March news reports that the Blue Jays might be negotiating to join the Astros in a new stadium in Palm Beach Gardens. Dunedin has been the Jays' spring training home since the team was founded in 1977.

Eggers' conversation with Beeston came a day after news outlets in Houston and Palm Beach wrote that Astros officials said the Jays were committed to moving with them to Palm Beach Gardens.

Astros owner Jim Crane told the Houston Chronicle that team representatives recently toured several Arizona stadiums for design ideas and hoped to receive final approval from Palm Beach Gardens by autumn.

Eggers said Beeston confirmed Friday that Palm Beach Gardens is a "serious" option for the Blue Jays but that "they're not committed by any stretch of the imagination." Beeston also told the Toronto Star on Friday that "there's nothing firm. If it works out, it works out. If it doesn't, we'll consider other options. . . . We could go a lot of different places."

Still, Eggers is frustrated that Dunedin could lose the team because the city can't compete with Major League Baseball's growing preference for "the shinier and newer toy," as he put it, over tradition.

"We've got an uphill battle here," he said.

Eggers and the Star say the Jays have pledged to remain at Dunedin's Florida Auto Exchange Stadium until their lease expires in 2017.

If the team decides to leave, Eggers said the city will "go hard" after other teams. City recreation director Vince Gizzi said the city is researching Florida and Arizona teams whose leases are nearing expiration, creating a brochure marketing the Tampa Bay region's appeal and gathering information for an economic impact study.

While he understands Florida's need to compete with Arizona for spring training teams, Eggers said the Florida Legislature's decision this year to provide extra state funding for construction of two-team stadiums hurts cities like Dunedin with one-team facilities.

Neither Beeston nor spokesmen for the Jays and Astros returned calls from the Times seeking comment.

Local businesses and others say the Jays' departure would deal a blow to the region's economy. John Webb, president of the Florida Sports Foundation, said a spring training site in Florida typically has an economic impact of $30 million to $50 million for the surrounding community.

"It differs a lot," he said, depending on the franchise and its following and the size of its stadium.

In Dunedin, the Blue Jays have a smaller stadium but a loyal following, Webb said. Statewide, 61 percent of spring training ticket buyers are out-of-town visitors, but that might be higher for the Jays.

"You have a lot of people who come from Canada and stay the whole six-week time," he said.

Dunedin Chamber of Commerce president Lynn Wargo said her agency assists "hundreds, if not thousands" of tourists, many of them from Canada, who visit throughout February and March solely for Jays games.

And Cindy Phillips, who opened the Home Plate on the Trail restaurant across from the stadium in January, said she would miss the 30 to 40 percent boost in spring season business. But she thinks the true impact would be felt by spectators.

"A lot of our guests are from Canada but own condominiums here. So I think that the heartbreak (would be for) their true fans," she said.

While Phillips understands the Jays' desire for consolidated stadium and practice space, which they don't have in Dunedin, she expressed frustration that Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that uses taxpayer money to help teams relocate to the detriment of other taxpayers. If the Jays go, she wondered, would other nearby teams follow?

"He's chipping away at all of (the region's) pockets," she said.

Still, a move by either team doesn't appear imminent.

Palm Beach Gardens spokesman Tom McNicholas said in a statement that the city is "thrilled to hear that Jim Crane has fully committed" to moving the Astros there from Kissimmee. But the city and Palm Beach County are still studying the impact a new stadium would have on traffic and finances, he said. Both entities will hold public hearings and votes before submitting an application to the state seeking funding.

Meanwhile, Eggers said he was able to negotiate at least one thing with Beeston: Each Friday morning, the two agreed to touch base on the latest developments by phone.

Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report. Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or ksummers@tampabay.com.

Toronto Blue Jays explore spring training move from Dunedin 07/12/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 10:44pm]

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