CLEARWATER — City leaders will travel to Philadelphia to network with members of the Philadelphia Phillies organization on Friday and Saturday, resuming the yearly tradition that was skipped in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The annual pilgrimage began in the 1940s, when the Phillies made Clearwater their spring training home. But stakes are high this year as the city and team are still negotiating a deal to keep the Phillies playing in Clearwater after the current contract expires in 2023.
The new deal is dependent on a renovation of Spectrum Field and the Carpenter Complex, which was estimated in 2018 at $79.7 million in city, county, state and team dollars. Negotiations stalled in 2019 after Pinellas County balked at the city’s $40 million request for bed tax dollars for the project. The city then hired strategic management consulting firm CAA Icon to help. But negotiations with the Phillies for the renovation and terms of a new contract are still ongoing.
“I think it’s as important as it’s ever been,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said of the trip.
Taxpayers will pay for travel expenses of Hibbard, council members David Allbritton, Mark Bunker and Hoyt Hamilton, along with interim city manager Micah Maxwell and parks and recreation director Jim Halios. The total for those six employees is $5,845 for airfare, hotel, meals, mileage reimbursement, parking, transportation and incidentals, according to communications director Joelle Castelli.
Jon Jennings, who the council recently voted to hire as the next Clearwater city manager, will also meet the delegation in Philadelphia. Castelli said the city will pay $1,058 for his hotel, airfare, meals and incidentals. Jennings, currently the city manager of Portland, Maine, is scheduled to begin work in Clearwater on Nov. 8, according his contract, which will be voted on by the council next week.
Council member Kathleen Beckman, elected last year, declined to go on what would have been her first Phillies trip, saying she does not want there to be “a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest” as the city negotiates a new contract with the team.
“I love baseball and the long tradition and economic value the Phillies spring training brings to Clearwater, but I don’t see it as appropriate for the city to pay for my travel and related expenses for an activity related to an organization that will be coming to the council for approval of funding,” Beckman said.
The city’s itinerary includes dinner on Friday in the stadium’s dining room paid for by the Phillies followed by the game against the Colorado Rockies. On Saturday, city officials will have dinner in a corporate suite at the stadium paid for by the Phillies, followed by the game against the Rockies.
Over the decades, a few council members have declined to go on the trip or opted to pay their own way. Beckman said she’d rather see the money be spent on social services for residents like homeless diversion programs, case management and job training.
Halios said the trip serves as important “relationship building” to continue a more than 75-year-old city partnership that can’t all be done remotely.
“A lot of times during spring training here we don’t have the one-on-one time with the ownership,” Halios said. “For city officials, it’s to see what the operation is up there and how it relates to the operation down here, because there’s a symbiotic relationship between them.”
Hibbard also said the networking is critical this year as both organizations have shifts in leadership. Since the last trip in 2019, Clearwater has three new council members and a new city manager, and the Phillies have a new general manager.
“In my opinion this is part of due diligence,” Hibbard said. “You’re going to be making a very big decision, you need to know who the players are, you need to know what the economic impact on our city is, and I think you also need to understand what you’re going to do if we don’t keep the Phillies.”
The Clearwater delegation will also include Hibbard’s wife, Teresa Hibbard, and Hamilton’s wife, Sheryl Hamilton. The spouses are paying their own expenses, Castelli said.