DUNEDIN — For the first time after two years of hushed negotiations between city officials and the Toronto Blue Jays, residents and baseball fans are getting to see what the future could hold for the team's springtime facilities.
During the city's first public meeting Monday, officials released an animated video showing a renovated version of the team's current game-day spot, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Douglas Avenue. And on Tuesday, they took it a step further and held an open house, where residents made their way through informational stations staffed by team officials ready to answer questions about the project.
"We wanted to give people the chance to come out and ask their questions to the experts because we want to hear from our residents about their concerns," Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said. "This needs to be a community-driven project."
A deal will not officially be made for several months. But the meetings were the first steps toward asking the county and state for help with an $81 million proposal to spruce up the team's facilities before its contract with the city expires at the close of 2017. If the project goes through, the team would agree to stay in the city for 25 more years and remain the only major-league baseball team to have never changed its spring training site.
The animated video, created by Populous, a global architectural firm specializing in sports facility development, shows the stadium with a variety of specialized fan seating areas that designers say will add to the "intensity and intimacy of the game" while also adding about 3,000 seats.
"The stadium has great bones, and I think we can confidently tell you that we can add to that to enhance it," said Populous representative Mike Sabatini.
The plans show a tiki hut bar in right-centerfield, lawn seating and a party deck along the third base line, several drink rails, lounge and shaded spots, beach huts on the Douglas Avenue side, a concourse on the third base side and other "destination" seating throughout. The plans also include several breezeways, so air can flow in and out of the stadium to keep it cool, a year-round team store and a more open and welcoming entrance.
The architectural style has not yet been determined, but could be centered on one of three themes: Key West, retro or Mediterranean.
Sabatini said the firm's architects, who have designed spring training facilities for many other major-league teams in both Florida and Arizona, will work to "create an icon" that is memorable and will tell a story about the team's history in the city.
According to parks and recreation director Vince Gizzi, the stadium renovations will account for about 40 percent of the total $81 million cost. The rest will go toward building a new training clubhouse at the team's current training facility site at the Englebert Complex on Solon Avenue.
"Training is the main reason for spring training, and (Blue Jays president Mark) Shapiro follows the thought that the majority of the money should be spent training players," Gizzi said. "But we also know the stadium and its amenities is what is going to draw the tourists. … It's not just about watching a ball game anymore, it's an experience."
Only exterior renderings of the proposed training facility have been shown thus far, and Gizzi says he is unsure when any interior drawings will be released. The team did, however, show photos of indoor facilities used by other major-league teams alongside those used by the Blue Jays — and there was a stark difference.
Blue Jays executive vice president of business operations Andrew Miller said the team needs upgraded, state-of-the-art facilities "that allow us to provide the best resources to develop the best possible players."
Due to land limitations in Dunedin, the team wasn't able to secure its biggest wish — to have the stadium and training clubhouse on the same site. But the promised updates to the training space to give players a competitive advantage is one of the things Shapiro says won him over.
"We found a way to satisfy the most important things," he said. "We will have a state-of-the-art facility … and compromise by having to drive (to the stadium)."
A preliminary timeline shows the city approving the agreement in its entirety next summer and having the project done in time for opening day in spring 2019.
"Timelines are very aggressive. … But (the Blue Jays) have expressed a willingness and desire to move along with us to expedite the process," said interim City Manager Doug Hutchens. "We have a common goal to get this accomplished."
Shapiro said the other thing that made him want to stay in Dunedin, where the team has spent spring training since its 1977 inception, had nothing to do with money or renovations or privately negotiated deals.
"When you are making a decision for 25 years, you are not making a decision for yourself. … You have an obligation to look at if you are doing the right thing for a franchise, a city, a county, an area," he said. "This is where we want to be.
"I know this is the right decision for the Toronto Blue Jays. That is something I believe strongly in."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.