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Pinellas' revenue from hotel rooms might be tapped to retain or lure spring training teams.
Published Apr. 29, 2013

County officials juggling the Pinellas bed tax could soon face another request for dollars, this time to keep at least two Major League Baseball teams in the county for spring training.

The Toronto Blue Jays' lease to play in Dunedin expires in 2017 and they have indicated unhappiness that their stadium is nearly 4 miles from their training complex.

These concerns turned serious last week when the Florida Legislature tentatively slotted $50 million for spring training facilities that would be shared by two teams. It was widely perceived as a way to help Palm Beach Gardens build a complex for the Blue Jays and Houston Astros.

"That legislation was not helpful. We need to keep a nucleus of teams in the area to keep spring training viable,'' Pinellas Commission Chairman Ken Welch said. Bed tax money may be needed to "either maintain the teams we have now, or allow us to add a team, or if we lose the Blue Jays, replace them.''

Bed tax funds might help Dunedin underwrite a compromise with the Blue Jays, Welch said, or perhaps upgrade St. Petersburg's Al Lang Stadium site, which has not held spring training for five years, or even help expand practice fields around Clearwater's Bright House Field to allow the Philadelphia Phillies to share the stadium with a second team.

"The first swing should be, let's try to keep the Blue Jays where they are,'' Welch said. "But we need to be willing to look at other options.''

One problem is there is no mechanism for setting priorities.

The county's 5 percent tax on hotel and motel rooms currently generates about $30 million a year and goes for tourist advertising, beach nourishment and various brick and mortar projects, including Tropicana Field.

The county will pay off its share of Trop bonds in 2015, freeing up $6 million a year of bed tax funds - a prospect that has cities and private organizations jockeying for future funds, both short term and long term.

Hotels and beach communities are worried that federal budget woes may gut critical beach nourishment efforts. The Clearwater Aquarium is planning a $160 million expansion. Oldsmar wants a BMX complex, and St. Petersburg holds out hope that bed taxes might help underwrite a new major league stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays at some point over the next decade or so.

"All funding agencies dealing with sports need to keep their options open,'' St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said.

The County Commission, which essentially controls the bed tax, is trying to find a framework for balancing these competing interests. Do they fund projects a few years at a time? Do they underwrite bonds for more stadiums or a new aquarium, tying those funds up for 20 or 30 years?

At a meeting this month, commissioners agreed to hold a workshop soon to figure out how to set priorities, although sand seemed to have the most solid support.

"Beach nourishment has to be the top of the list, and maybe there's not money for anything else after that,'' Commissioner Susan Latvala said.

In an interview, Welch agreed that beach nourishment is critical, but also said he has been talking to Dunedin officials about keeping the Blue Jays.

In the musical chair world of spring training, uncertainty in Pinellas originated in the isolated scrub land of Brevard County.

The Washington Nationals train at Viera, which requires a 2-1/2-hour round-trip bus ride to play their nearest competitor. The Nationals can get out of their lease there easily and have talked to Fort Myers about moving there, the Washington Post has reported.

Losing the Nationals to Florida's West Coast, where nine other teams train, would trigger important contract provisions with two of the three remaining East Coast teams.

The New York Mets, who train in Port St. Lucie, and the St. Louis Cardinals, who share a stadium in Jupiter with the Miami Marlins, can abandon their facilities if fewer than four teams train on their side of Florida.

If the Mets and Cardinals left for Arizona or West Florida, spring training on the East Coast would collapse -which is where the Astros come in.

They have indicated they might leave Kissimmee when their lease expires in 2017, about the same time the Blue Jays could leave Dunedin.

Palm Beach Gardens wants to pair the two teams up in one new stadium, with adjacent, individual offices and practice fields. Unless the full Legislature or Gov. Rick Scott changes the current state budget, the state would put up $50 million if Palm Beach Gardens matches it.

Moving the Astros and the Jays to Palm Beach County would provide insurance against the Nationals moving in this direction.

"It's odd that we would spend taxpayer money to move one team to the West Coast, then two teams to the East Coast,'' said Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers.

"We used to be upset about Arizona stealing our teams. Now we are almost encouraging cities within Florida to steal from each other, and using lots of taxpayer dollars.''

Eggers said he has not yet talked to the Blue Jays, though he hopes to soon.

Dunedin's current stadium, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, is old and could be replaced. The city limits may not hold enough vacant land for a stadium, plus offices and five or six practice fields, which most teams want, Eggers said. But there might be room for a new stadium with a few adjacent fields, plus others elsewhere.

The legislation that provided for $50 million for a shared stadium also could provide $20 million for a single team stadium. If Dunedin could qualify for that, Eggers said, the city would have to raise $20 million in matching funds.

"We would need county support,'' he said, "and the (bed tax) would be an appropriate use for that.

"I am going to meet with the Blue Jays and assess what they are asking for.''

The team did not respond to a request for comment.