DUNEDIN — Has the Toronto Blue Jays' infatuation with Florida's east coast ended and the team's attentions returned to its longtime spring training home here?
The Jays aren't saying, but after months of freezing out Dunedin while they and the Houston Astros worked a deal for a new stadium in Palm Beach Gardens, the team has finally agreed to sit down with Dunedin officials later this month and talk about what it would take to keep them in town.
While hopeful that the Jays will renew their contract with the city, Mayor Dave Eggers stressed that the talks will be very preliminary.
"This will be the first time we sit down and talk about their wants and needs, and that's a big first step," Eggers said. "I'm excited about it. We should have at least some clarity about what they're looking for and what their expectations are and then we can get to work" evaluating whether the city can deliver.
Meanwhile, media reports and a government official indicate that proposed plans for a 117-acre spring training complex for the Astros and Jays in Palm Beach Gardens are dead after residents there vehemently complained about the potential for traffic congestion, noise and light pollution. Palm Beach Gardens city commissioners asked Palm Beach County officials to look for a more suitable site.
Palm Beach County and Houston Astros officials say they haven't spoken with Jays representatives in several weeks.
Ken Carson, the Jays' Dunedin-based senior consultant and former director of Florida operations, said that "as far as I know" the team is no longer participating in the Astros' search for a new spring training home.
"Since that thing (in Palm Beach Gardens) fell through, everything is status quo as far as we're concerned. The only thing we had going was over in Palm Beach Gardens and that fell through. We're not really looking anywhere else at this present time," he said, before referring questions to Jays top brass.
But the Jays, citing a pledge by Beeston to not negotiate in the media, are keeping mum. Both Matthew Shuber, vice president of business affairs and legal counsel, and Jay Stenhouse, vice president of communications, declined to comment on the status of spring training negotiations. Beeston did not return a call from the Times.
The Jays report to Dunedin for spring training Feb. 17. They play their first game against the Philadelphia Phillies on Feb. 27.
The team has pledged to remain in Dunedin until its contract expires in December 2017, but it had threatened to move after that because of unhappiness over Dunedin's training facilities.
Just in case, Dunedin has reached out to other teams whose leases are also nearing expiration.
City parks and recreation director Vince Gizzi said the Milwaukee Brewers sent a lobbyist in mid-January to tour Dunedin's Florida Auto Exchange Stadium and Englebert practice complex on Solon Avenue. According to media reports, the Brewers' are committed to staying in Arizona at least through this year.
"It was really very preliminary exploring," Gizzi said. "We didn't get a reaction one way or the other."
Eggers said he contacted the Washington Nationals, whose lease in Viera on Florida's east coast expires in 2017, but the team did not respond.
With a Palm Beach Gardens stadium off the table, Palm Beach County Administrator Bob Weisman said his staff will talk with other counties on the heavily developed east coast about potentially hosting a new stadium site.
The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals already train in Palm Beach County, and Weisman said the goal is to keep them there and locate other teams nearby.
"We don't necessarily need additional teams in Palm Beach County. But we need to have teams for them to play in the South Florida area," Weisman said, adding that prime land able to accommodate a 100-acre or so stadium is scarce. "Any county from Brevard south is a possibility as far as we're concerned."
So far, Weisman said, the Astros, who now train in Kissimmee, "continue to have interest." He said the county met several weeks ago with the Astros and Jays, but said he's had "no contact with (the Jays) recently."
Astros attorney Giles Kibbe said he also hasn't talked to the Jays "in a couple of weeks," when both teams were waiting to hear back from Palm Beach County on a possible stadium site.
"We're evaluating Florida and Arizona," Kibbe said. "We'd like to have ... a plan, some commitments, in place by the end of the year."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.