Americans for Prosperity is opposing America’s pastime in Pasco County.
The national conservative advocacy group, backed by billionaire Charles Koch, wants Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto $35 million from the upcoming Florida budget for a baseball complex and potential spring training site for the Tampa Bay Rays.
The group used Twitter and Facebook to try to rally opposition to the budget appropriation submitted by Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, calling it corporate welfare for professional sports. The posts included a link to three-paragraph letter opposing the spring training subsidy that people can sign and email to the governor’s office.
“Professional sports teams are no different than any other industry — they don’t deserve special handouts. Whether it’s the NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA or any other league, our tax dollars shouldn’t go toward professional sports stadiums. Instead, Floridians should have the choice to support a business rather than having the government mandate winners and losers in the economy,” the letter stated.
The actual appropriation request never mentions the Rays nor spring training. It touts the facility as a youth tournament and training facility to add to Pasco’s sports tourism inventory. Still, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and others have acknowledged the Rays interest in moving spring training and player development facilities to Pasco County. Simpson said previously that the Pasco delegation likely would be willing to lend a hand in obtaining state financing for the endeavor.
The Rays declined comment Thursday. The team’s lease at its current spring training site in Port Charlotte initially ran through 2028, but the Rays, in November 2019, exercised an option to stay three additional years.
Americans for Prosperity announced its opposition to the Pasco appropriation via social media on March 17 and again on March 22. By Thursday morning, the Facebook post had drawn 487 comments — nearly unanimous in agreement — and 2,700 likes.
By late Wednesday afternoon, the governor’s office had received 23 emails on the issue via the Americans for Prosperity call for action, said gubernatorial press secretary Christina Pushaw.
Burgess and Pasco officials, however, promoted the attributes of the complex, which is planned to include several full-size practice fields, a stadium with lighting and spectator seating, team clubhouse, locker rooms, indoor and outdoor training facilities, kitchen and dining rooms, player housing and parking.
”The proposed complex for the Rays is much more than spring training and would be a wonderful addition to the Tampa Bay area,” Pasco commission chairperson Kathryn Starkey said Thursday.
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A likely scenario is for the Rays to lease the county-owned facility and make it available for tournaments and other events during off-peak times.
The request for state funding came from Pasco County, not the Rays, and the facility would be publicly owned, “which is an important distinction,” Burgess said of the corporate welfare tag.
Pasco County administrator Dan Biles said the county always looks “at ways to provide more sports and recreation opportunities — youth, amateur, and professional” and “will continue to do so, regardless of the funding source.”
In an odd coincidence, the push for the baseball complex occurred nearly simultaneously with the release of a sports tourism marketing report commissioned by the county’s tourism promotion agency — Experience Florida’s Sports Coast.
The report, prepared by the firm Collective Brand Experience Sports Tourism, known by the acronym Collective BEST, recommended Pasco County study an indoor aquatics center or an indoor multipurpose, multisport complex as its next sports tourism venture. An accompanying inventory of fields showed 72 baseball and softball diamonds within 25 miles of the county and 258 diamonds within 75 miles.
“Due to the plethora of courts, fields and diamond facilities in the Florida area, the need may lie elsewhere for a sports facility in Pasco County,” the report said.