DUNEDIN — After more than a year of tight-lipped negotiations with the Toronto Blue Jays about a new stadium, city officials say it won't be long before residents and baseball fans get a glimpse of what the future could hold and whether the team will stay in its longtime spring home.
The mayor and the team still won't reveal anything about their talks, but officials say the deadline to apply for county funding is tentatively set for sometime in August or September. It's time for the city to make moves toward approving its application, an item set to come before the commission sometime this summer.
Dunedin officials started negotiating with the Blue Jays — who have spent the spring in the city since their 1977 debut — in November 2014, when they met with team leaders who said they were unhappy with the conditions of the current facility, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium at 373 Douglas Ave.
Although the team, whose contract with Dunedin expires at the close of 2017, has also flirted with other cities, team president Mark Shapiro has consistently said the team's intention is to stay. He echoed that sentiment in an interview Friday with the Times, confirming Dunedin is the only city the team is talking to.
"We appreciate the support and the history and the strength of (Dunedin's) community," he said, adding that the city's proximity to an airport and other teams' facilities makes it logistically convenient, and that "it's a place where players and staff of all financial ranges can live all year 'round."
Shapiro has yet to be publicly specific about what the team wants, but has said players need something "state-of-the-art" to be competitive. The current stadium, lacks "modernization" and "resources that allow (players) to achieve their potential," he said at a February team practice. Shapiro hasn't said whether the team would accept a renovation of the current stadium or wants something built on a different site.
The current field is 4 miles from the team's practice facility, a setup team leaders have expressed an interest in changing in the past, but because of limited available land may have to deal with.
"I think that is an area where we will have to compromise to remain in Dunedin," Shapiro said. "I definitely want our facilities housed together, but some facet of our operations may have to change for us to work it out … I think that demonstrates how much we want to be there."
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski, the city's liaison, said Shapiro's statements are accurate and that having the facilities at the same address is "not workable" in Dunedin.
She said the discussion this summer won't reveal any specific architectural plans, but will give commissioners and residents a better idea of what the team is asking for and what the city is willing to give.
Bujalski said city commissioners will vote on the application to the county — one of four possible funding partners along with the city, team and state — as a request for Tourist Development Council bed tax dollars. This year that's a pot of about $48 million raised through a 6 percent tourist tax allocated to marketing and capital projects.
Bujalski said it is important to realize approval of the application is not a final okay on the project, just the way to secure the city's ability to ask the county for help. The city will eventually go through a similar process for state funding, then more meetings allowing for public input before the project gets a final go-ahead.
"This is the very, very, very beginning of the process, so we don't want people to get carried away thinking this is going to be a whirlwind-type vote," Bujalski said. "It's going to be a long process — one the public will be involved in every step of the way."
County Commissioner Dave Eggers, former Dunedin mayor, said although the city has yet to bring any concrete requests to the county, he and other commissioners generally support the partnership with the Blue Jays.
"Different (economic impact) studies have different outcomes," he said, "but comparative to other types of tourist attractions, spring training seems to be a pretty good one for economic development and tourism."
Results of the city-funded economic impact analysis for the six-week-long 2016 spring training season, showing $85 million spent by game attendees — $5 million more than last year — support Eggers' logic. But New York-based economist and professor Richard D. Wolff, a critic of pro sports team subsidies, says residents should be wary.
"It's just as easy to hire an economist who will err on the high side, showing that the cost far exceeds the revenues as it is to hire one who will come up with the exact opposite conclusion," he said. "But in the end, neither is relevant."
Wolff said while it's fair to say some studies have eventually proven themselves true, what happens when they don't?
"It's easy to promise hyped-up revenues because there's no legal recourse if the estimates don't turn out, but I think you could say officials are engaged in something fundamentally fraudulent," he said. "They are shoving their cost to the public … hustling the taxpayer for monies that will rebound to (the team's) bottom line."
Bujalski said the city chose Mark A. Bonn of Bonn Marketing in Tallahassee, who was chosen by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009 to prepare a study about the value of spring training to the state as whole, to complete this year's study to ensure "good numbers" from someone who is reputable with the county and state.
Andres Malave, Florida communications director for Americans For Prosperity, a nonprofit group against taxpayer-funded stadiums, said cities should never even get to the point of an economic study.
"It's not just the fact that research shows return on investment for these projects is dismal, it's the fact that this is an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars," he said.
Malave said although spring training can be good for the state, teams should pay their own way.
"Taxpayers should not pay to prop up a private business, whether it's a pizza joint or a pro sports team," he said.
Price tags on spring training revamps have varied throughout the state.
In 2009, the Tampa Bay Rays spring training site, Charlotte Sports Park in Charlotte County, reopened after a $27 million update. The 2010 renovation of Sarasota County's Ed Smith Stadium, spring spot for the Baltimore Orioles, cost about $31 million. And most recently, a deal between the New York Yankees, Hillsborough County and Tampa Sports Authority has each party paying about $13 million toward a $40 million revamp.
County Commissioner Pat Gerard said the board has been anticipating a proposal from Dunedin and can't see any reason commissioners wouldn't want to help. Commissioner Charlie Justice agreed commissioners would like to see the team stay in Pinellas, but said dollars will decide what happens.
"It's just all going to come down to what we can afford to do," he said.
Eggers said he hopes to see the team put forward a substantial part of the funds.
"That is what is going to build acceptability to the residents of this county and of Dunedin," he said.
Bujalski would not say how much the city is willing to put in, but said commissioners "will make sure, for our residents, that whatever the city of Dunedin puts in is affordable."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.