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Hasty deals mean more years of spring training

There were no home runs hit in the baseball games played in Dunedin and Clearwater city halls last week.

These games weren't played with bats and gloves. Instead, the equipment was calculators, spreadsheets, cell phones and lots of black coffee.

The players didn't saunter with cool confidence to the plate. These players were pushed to bat chewing their nails, sweating over numbers and doing without sleep.

I wouldn't blame these players _ city officials in Dunedin and Clearwater _ if they couldn't stand the thought of baseball right now. Last week was no walk in the ballpark for them.

Up against a deadline that was unreasonable from the beginning, they had to quickly negotiate and approve longterm agreements to provide updated facilities for their baseball spring-training teams. The agreements are worth millions of dollars.

The process of approving those agreements was painful to watch. And because it was so rushed, no one should be surprised if unanticipated problems surface with these deals, which literally were penciled on scraps of paper as the week ended.

Why the rush?

The state is most at fault. Communities in Florida that have spring training baseball are scrambling to meet an Oct. 1 deadline to apply for state funds to build or renovate publicly owned baseball facilities.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, sponsored the bill that will award five spring-training communities up to $15-million each over 30 years.

He authored the bill after out-of-state communities began throwing money at Florida's spring training teams in an effort to lure them away. In some Florida communities, the facilities that serve as homes for spring training baseball are old and inadequate, but replacing them is too expensive for local governments. Latvala and others feared that the teams would leave to get access to state-of-the-art facilities and signing bonuses other states are offering.

The bill passed the Legislature easily, but it wasn't signed by Gov. Jeb Bush until early June. That left the cities less than four months to decide whether to go for the money, determine what they wanted to build, come up with the local funding match required by the state and negotiate new contracts with their baseball teams.

Ideally, both Dunedin and Clearwater would have been ready to begin intense negotiations as soon as the bill was signed. But Clearwater had a few distractions (a controversial roundabout and a city manager who was in trouble), and Dunedin didn't get its negotiating team organized quickly enough.

Pinellas County tightened the screws on both cities when it declared that it wanted to see the terms of the deals by Sept. 11 if it was going to contribute matching dollars.

That's what brought us to the painful spectacle of last week.

The numbers on Clearwater's spreadsheets still were changing as late as Wednesday afternoon, with the City Commission scheduled to make a final decision Thursday night on a deal to build a $20-million stadium for the Philadelphia Phillies.

When the City Commission convened for that meeting, the city's negotiator, administrator Keith Ashby, still was answering detailed questions about what the numbers on the spreadsheet meant. And an angry crowd of residents had gathered in the City Hall auditorium, threatening to sue the city if the new stadium were built near their homes.

There was so much tension in the meeting room that rude remarks were made to commissioners by some members of the audience and an upset Mayor Brian Aungst threatened to have them ejected.

Meanwhile, Dunedin commissioners were holding one meeting after another, trying to reach an affordable deal to renovate the Toronto Blue Jays' spring training facilities in that city and keep the team in town for at least 15 years.

But the Blue Jays had refused to budge on a number of issues, making the tab for the renovations higher than the city could afford. And a Friday morning special meeting at which the City Commission had expected to quickly approve a deal stretched on and on.

Latvala, cell phone in hand, was summoned to Dunedin City Hall to help with on-the-spot telephone negotiations with the Blue Jays' top brass, while other city officials made their own phone calls to try to influence the Jays to be reasonable. As the 10 a.m. meeting stretched past three hours, Latvala ordered pizza.

"I've got more numbers up here than you can shake a stick at," said an exasperated Commissioner John Doglione as he shuffled papers on the dais.

When city staffers were heard laughing in a nearby hallway, suffering officials pacing the commission chambers were not amused.

"We need to stop those people from having so much fun _ we're not having any," Commissioner Cecil Englebert grumbled.

In the end, both city commissions came down to a single question: How much is it worth to us to keep our team? Unless they wanted to pass up millions of dollars in state money, both cities had to act. There was no time for town meetings, no time for referendums, no time to see how other towns had done it, no time to sweat the possible political fallout.

Both cities wound up paying more than they wanted to. But interestingly, both commissions voted unanimously to go ahead.

Clearwater will issue bonds to build a $20-million stadium to keep the Phillies for at least 20 years. The Phillies will kick in at least $3-million for construction and will cover any cost overruns, plus pay rent of $274,000 a year. The city will contribute $5-million toward construction and pay many of the team's ongoing costs, including utilities and some taxes. The county and the state are being asked to contribute $7-million each toward building the stadium.

Dunedin's deal still was shifting Friday and a special Saturday morning commission meeting was scheduled. But it looked like the city would issue bonds for up to $12-million to make improvements to its spring training facilities. The state would be asked for $6-million, the county for $3-million, and the city and the Blue Jays would come up with the remaining $3-million. The Blue Jays would agree to stay in Dunedin for at least 15 years.

In both cities, there are lots of loose ends to tie up and the legal documents spelling out the deals still must be written. Neither city can say for sure where all the money will come from to cover the future costs of their deals, but officials blanch at any suggestion that tax rates might have to go up or politically popular projects might have to be canceled to pay the bills down the road. They prefer to be optimistic, they say.

If you are a resident who thinks the value of spring training to the community and its economy is overrated and that tax dollars shouldn't be used to support private enterprise, then you'll be angry about what happened last week.

But if you like to take the kids or grandkids to the ballpark, have a hot dog and a Coke and watch the players stretch their legs and their bats on a field of green, you have reason to celebrate. It looks like there will be baseball in Dunedin and Clearwater, not just next spring, but for many springs to come.