CLEARWATER ― The city wants $40 million from Pinellas County for improvements to a Philadelphia Phillies stadium and sports complex. So where exactly would that money go?
Clearwater’s struggle to answer that question to the county’s satisfaction has caused months of delays in the city’s quest for nearly $70 million in city, county and state funding.
Last week, city and team staff met with county officials to discuss the proposed upgrades to Spectrum Field and the Carpenter Complex. The project costs $79.7 million in total; the city is looking for $40 million in Pinellas bed tax money to add to its own commitment of $16 million. Under a term sheet signed by the city and the Phillies last year, state taxpayers would pay for another $13.7 million of the upgrades, and the Phillies would bear the remaining $10 million in costs, plus any overruns.
With that money, the city would restore the clubhouses at the Carpenter Complex; add a 160-person dormitory to the complex; renovate office space in both the complex and Spectrum Field; add climate-controlled club level seating to Spectrum Field and redo Spectrum Field’s left field concourse, among other improvements.
But before the city asks for state funding, the team wants Clearwater to secure a commitment from the county. Emails obtained through a public records request show that for months, Pinellas officials have been asking the city to provide a detailed “schedule of values” — planning documents that outline the cost of building upgrades.
In July ― some six months after Clearwater began formal negotiations with the county — Dennis Long, a consultant for the county on the Phillies project, wrote that Pinellas officials did not have the schedule they needed from the city.
In September, Long wrote with what appears to be some frustration that the city still had not provided a clear accounting of building expenses.
“While in normal circumstances, I would not babble on like this without proposing a solution to securing the info we need, in this instance I am at a loss because of the prior efforts and City responses,” Long, a retired lawyer, wrote.
Long redirected a request from the Tampa Bay Times for comment to the county.
Bill Horne, Clearwater’s city manager, said the data the city first provided caused some friction with county officials because some of the numbers were gathered from multiple reports. But now that the city and county have agreed to wait on a schedule of values currently being prepared by Populous Architects, that tension has eased, Horne said. The city should have the documents to the county by the end of December, he said.
Recent history shows that haggling between a county and a city over stadium funding is hardly unusual. Dunedin asked the county for more than $40 million for upgrades to its own minor league baseball stadium and training facility beginning in 2016. Discussions between the two parties dragged on for years.
“There was a lot of back and forth,” said Vince Gizzi, the Dunedin parks and recreation director.
In 2018, the Pinellas County Commission approved $41.7 million in funding.
Related story: Pinellas County commits $41.7 million to Blue Jays Stadium
Like Dunedin, Clearwater is requesting tourist development tax money, which comes from a six percent levy on hotel stays and overnight rentals. The bed taxes are meant for infrastructure projects.
Barry Burton, the Pinellas county administrator, said any county-funded construction would have to go toward projects that are likely to bring more tourists to local hotels. (The city has argued, via two different economic analyses, that the upgrades will pay for themselves.)
Horne said that the city and county have had preliminary conversations about which specific aspects of the Phillies project may be eligible for bed tax funding. For example, the county will probably not agree to pay for the proposed dormitory for staff and players at the Carpenter Complex, Horne said.
“The negotiation is over what’s going to be funded and what’s not going to be funded,” Horne said. “And the question will be, is it enough to where the Phillies will want to go forward?”
Former Parks and Recreation director Kevin Dunbar was for more than a year Clearwater’s point person on negotiations with the county. He was fired this week by Horne, the city manager, in the wake of three unflattering city audits into his department. Taking over for Dunbar on the Phillies project will be Horne, parks planning and project manager Michael Lavery, assistant to the city manager Jim Halios and finance director Jay Ravins.
Under Dunbar, Clearwater and the Phillies agreed to a term sheet in June 2018 that would keep the Phillies in Clearwater for spring training for 20 more years once its current contract expires in 2023.
The agreement said if the city hadn’t secured county and state funding for the facility upgrades by Dec. 31, 2018, the Phillies could walk away from the deal. The city would then be obligated to repay what the Phillies have spent on engineering and design work.
In interviews in 2018, John Timberlake, director of Florida operations for the Phillies, said the team would be willing to work with the city if efforts to secure funding stretched past the December deadline.
That hasn’t changed. But Timberlake said when the term sheet was signed last year, he did not expect the process of getting county funding to take this long.
Clearwater faces the looming threat of the 2020 Florida legislative session. Last year, a bill backed by House Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, would have essentially barred local governments from seeking state and county funding for sports stadiums. The bill overwhelmingly cleared the House, but died in a Senate committee.
If a similar measure were to become law after the 2020 session, Clearwater’s stadium funding plan would have to drastically change.
Even if the law stays the same, Clearwater will likely face questions from those wary of taxpayer-funded stadiums. If the city secures the funding it wants, taxpayers would be helping the Phillies, a team which in the last two off-seasons, committed a combined $448 million to just two players, pitcher Zack Wheeler and outfielder Bryce Harper.
Spectrum Field is also nearly 16 years old ― much younger than the Dunedin Blue Jays stadium that got county funding last year. In January, when county commissioners voted to allow the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council to review Clearwater’s funding request, some on the board noted the difference.
If the city is unable to win the desired funding, what will become of the relationship between Clearwater and the Phillies, which began in 1946?
Timberlake, the Phillies official, said he’s not in a position to speculate.