DUNEDIN — The Toronto Blue Jays' sudden criticism of their spring training facilities here comes on the heels of Gov. Rick Scott's announcement that state lawmakers are creating a trust fund to help pay for baseball stadium renovations to keep spring training teams in Florida.
And while the Blue Jays have dropped hints that they are considering ditching Dunedin for more modern facilities elsewhere, several city officials view this as merely the opening volley of negotiations between the city and the Jays. The team's current deal with the city expires in 2017.
"Negotiations always have to start somewhere, and I think that's all this is," said City Commissioner Julie Scales.
"I think this is just the kickoff of the normal process," added Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski.
And what's the normal process? The last time Dunedin and the Blue Jays negotiated a contract deal, a dozen years ago, there was much haggling and battling before taxpayers spent millions to upgrade Dunedin's baseball facilities.
Now the Blue Jays' president is telling the Toronto Globe and Mail that the situation in Dunedin is less than ideal because the stadium and the team's training complex are several miles apart. The Blue Jays didn't return calls for this report.
For Florida, there is the threat of Arizona. Over the past decade or so, Florida has lost five major-league teams to Arizona cities that have built new spring training stadiums and dangled high-dollar incentives.
That led the governor to announce late last month that he and legislators want to create a fund to help upgrade Florida's spring training stadiums or build new ones.
Lawmakers are concerned about stadium leases for the Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros that expire in 2016, and leases for the Blue Jays, Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves that expire the year after that. Those teams train in Lakeland, Kissimmee, Dunedin, Melbourne and Orlando, respectively.
The spring training bill's sponsor in the Florida Senate is Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who helped negotiate the Blue Jays' current deal with Dunedin in 2001. Back then, he had to mediate a dispute between the two sides over money for stadium renovations.
Now Latvala and Scott are championing a proposal to have the state funnel $5 million per year into a trust fund. It would contribute matching funds to cities that are refurbishing spring training sites. The state would chip in a maximum of $20 million over 30 years for each city.
"Spring training is a demonstrated tourism generator," Latvala said Thursday. "There's no question about the return on investment from putting state money into spring training facilities. All you've got to do is drive around Dunedin in March and look at all the Ontario car tags."
Last year, 1.6 million fans attended 230 spring training games in Florida, and 61 percent of them came from out of state, according to the Florida Sports Foundation.
Florida has done this before. In 2001 and 2006, state lawmakers set aside tens of millions of dollars to keep teams in Florida. That money helped build Bright House Field in Clearwater and helped renovate what is now called Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin.
Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers, who is trying to arrange a formal meeting with the Jays, said the city will likely seek the state's help again.
Nearly $300,000 a year of Pinellas County's hotel bed tax is being used through February 2016 to pay off construction bonds on Dunedin's stadium. Nearly $588,000 a year through 2021 is earmarked to pay off the debt on Clearwater's stadium.
"The state and the county and the city were partners the last time a deal was negotiated," Eggers said. "From what I'm anticipating, that partnership will have to be in place again for this thing to work."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.