DUNEDIN — The economy is improving, so several city commissioners want to lift restrictions on city officials' travel so they can bolster Dunedin's sister-city relationships — and maybe watch a little baseball.
At commissioners' request, city staffers crafting the 2014 budget will begin looking for money to send Mayor Dave Eggers to festivities next summer marking Stirling, Scotland's 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a decisive victory in the country's war for independence from England.
Stirling and Dunedin are part of a three-city sister partnership that includes Prince Edward Island, Canada. Dunedin officials haven't visited either city in at least six years because of budget concerns.
"If we think it's important enough to have a sister-city relationship, then it's important enough to perhaps use taxpayer dollars to foster it to some degree. I'm not saying go crazy with it, but not be ashamed," Eggers said. "And if we don't think it's important enough for that, then maybe we need to review why we have (the program) in the first place."
Added Commissioner Ron Barnette: "There should be a balance there somewhere. We should go out of our way to assure people that we're not going on a pleasure junket. But at the same time, it would be part of the responsibility of the mayor's office to reciprocate and bear gifts and — nothing wasteful — but to be polite."
The comments came during a daylong commission brainstorming retreat, held nearly two weeks before the Toronto Blue Jays announced they may consider moving spring training out of Dunedin when their lease at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium expires in 2017.
At the retreat, city leaders had expressed interest in jump-starting negotiations by sending at least one official to the Jays' opening game in April. Eggers, the commission's longtime liaison to the Jays, and Vice Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said they were willing to pull funds from their personal commission accounts to assist with food and lodging for a short visit.
Eggers, who made the city's last Toronto visit circa 2006, said he paid for his own flight for the 24-hour trip.
City Manager Rob DiSpirito said staffers had already toured the Baltimore Orioles' spring training stadium in Sarasota, and planned to visit others to glimpse the terms and amenities Major League Baseball teams want.
Despite the recession, he noted, officials in Clearwater, where the Philadelphia Phillies train, have continued sending ambassadors to Philadelphia to attend the team's opener, as well as spend about a week networking with the larger community to muster business and tourism connections. Pinellas County and Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce representatives join them.
Dunedin commissioners were expected to consider a Canadian visit, along with other staff suggestions, as part of a discussion at their Thursday night meeting about ways to persuade the Blue Jays to stay.
When Stirling Provost Fergus Wood last visited Dunedin in 2010, Bujalski said, she single-handedly coordinated arrangements, which came together based solely on the goodwill of merchants and private citizens who volunteered to house and escort the official.
Bujalski believes the city should designate a staffer to handle the job. And reliance on community volunteers, she said, should be reserved for special programs. For example, she suggested creating a formal sister city program, which could include things like a student bagpiper exchange or travel to overseas pipe band competitions.
Such a program, she said, would be a boon for Dunedin, given the strong Scottish influence it shares with its two sister cities. According to commissioners, former Stirling Provost Colin O'Brien was so impressed by his visit years ago that he became a part-time Dunedin resident.
The city hasn't touched the $2,000 annual budget that Bujalski and late pipe band director Sandy Keith helped establish roughly two years ago to create a formal sister-city program. But, Bujalski said, "it's hard to tell what to budget if you don't know what program you're trying to put together."
Meanwhile, commissioners said they want to study nearby jurisdictions with successful sister-city relationships. They also want to work more closely with the Pinellas County Convention and Visitor's Bureau and other local tourism groups to attract visitors.
According to Commissioner Julie Scales, who serves on the board of the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council, most of the area's tourists hail from Canada, Germany and Britain. Saying beaches are the No. 1 draw for Europeans, she called Dunedin's recent branding as the Home of Honeymoon Island "spot on."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.