DUNEDIN — A year after news surfaced that the Toronto Blue Jays were unhappy with their spring training facilities here, team officials finally sat down Monday with city leaders for their first discussion about what it will take for the ball club to stay.
The Jays have trained in Dunedin since the team formed in 1977 but spent several months last year exploring a deal with the Houston Astros for a two-team stadium complex in Palm Beach Gardens on Florida's east coast — an idea later quashed by community opposition.
But on Monday, team officials appeared open to staying after the team's contract expires in 2017, Mayor Dave Eggers said. The contract includes two five-year renewal options, and the city hopes the Jays will commit to staying even longer.
"I would characterize the meeting as excellent," Eggers said.
This week's meeting marked an about-face in communications between the Jays and city officials, who previously had to get most of their information about the team's stadium search from the media. They were frustrated when they couldn't schedule meetings with team executives or get callbacks from Jays president Paul Beeston.
But Beeston attended Monday's meeting, along with Eggers; Matthew Shuber, the Jays' vice president of business affairs and legal counsel; Dunedin City Manager Rob DiSpirito; Deputy City Manager Doug Hutchens; and Dunedin parks and recreation director Vince Gizzi.
Eggers said he got the "distinct impression" that the nearly 4-mile distance between the Dunedin practice and stadium facilities is what prompted the Jays to search elsewhere. But he said it appears the club's long-term relationships, tradition and other ties to the area might entice it to stay.
He said preliminary talks indicate the Jays want the city's Englebert Complex, the team's practice facility, expanded, but most work would likely focus on either extensive renovations or a complete overhaul of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, where the team plays games.
Eggers declined to guess the cost of that work, saying the team was still crunching numbers Monday. However, the city expects the team to submit its list of desired upgrades and financial figures by mid April.
"I feel they are ready to move forward, accepting that split-facility concept," Eggers said. "At least we got started, and I felt the nature of the meeting was very positive and forward-moving. But now the real work begins to see if it's doable."
Beeston did not return a call Tuesday from the Tampa Bay Times seeking comment.
Once they get the list, city officials will start pursuing funding talks with the county and state. Eggers said the Jays' anticipated request is "reasonable" and not at all unusual compared to those that other spring training communities have received.
The Jays "know they're going to be a partner in this deal," Eggers said. "Clearly, state and county will be the biggest partner, but the city and Blue Jays will be, too — as it should be. Everybody should have some skin in the game."
Asked about Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos' comments last month that the team would still look elsewhere if approached with a good opportunity, Eggers said "no deals obviously are done until both parties sign off."
But, he said, he "felt very positive about the meeting and their level of commitment to negotiations."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.