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Dunedin, Toronto Blue Jays appear headed toward $81 million spring training deal

Published Sep. 24, 2016

DUNEDIN — After two years of muted negotiations between city officials and the Toronto Blue Jays, it is finally clear the team plans to stay put.

Preliminary plans show the team's stadium and training facility locations will stay the same, but the city and team will partner with the county and state to do about $81 million in renovations and rebuilds. In exchange, the team would agree to spend 25 more years in the city.

Parks and recreation director Vince Gizzi said Florida Auto Exchange Stadium at 373 Douglas Ave. will undergo significant renovations to improve fan experience and increase capacity, but the framework of the structure will stay the same.

At the training site at the Englebert Complex on Solon Avenue, Gizzi said, practice fields will be mostly untouched, but a new clubhouse will be built and house state-of-the-art equipment, offices for the team's staff and showers and locker rooms for the team's 200-plus major- and minor-league players.

The goal, Gizzi said, is to bring all non-game-day amenities under one roof, so the stadium can be used almost exclusively for games.

Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro said that although the split setup won't grant the team's wish to have both facilities in the same spot, it will accommodate what he thinks is the team's greatest need — to have a yearlong, state-of-the-art training facility big enough to accommodate both minor leaguers and major leaguers at the same time.

"You never make deals and achieve an ideal state," he said. "Once we had time to thoroughly assess Dunedin as a partner, the benefits far outweighed (everything else)."

As a plus, the setup gives players the chance to stay in the city where the Blue Jays have spent every spring since the team's 1977 debut — a tradition Shapiro has long stressed. The Jays will remain the only team in Major League Baseball history to have never changed its spring site.

The plans call for Pinellas County to fund more than half the project, putting up about $46 million. That money would come from Tourist Development Council bed tax dollars, raised through a 6 percent tax allocated to marketing and capital projects.

The team would shoulder about $15.7 million, the state about $13.6 million and the city the rest — about $5.6 million.

County commissioners seem happy to help with a project for a team that claims an annual impact of about $70 million, but some say they can't be sure how much the county will be able to give until all bed tax funding requests are in.

"It is all going to come down to balance. … We certainly can't spend it all on the Blue Jays," County Commissioner Ken Welch said. "We have been an active partner in the past, and I think that should continue. But it has to be reasonable and have a return value."

Dunedin Chamber of Commerce president Lynn Wargo says local merchants are among the first to feel the value. Not only are they glad to hear that the team is staying, but that games will still be close to downtown.

"Spring training is probably our busiest time of year," Dunedin Brewery manager James Gilbert said. "Fans flock down this way after games because it is walking distance."

Wargo said she has seen many people come for spring training and return for vacation. Some even end up buying a second home in Dunedin.

"We have the whole country of Canada looking at us because of our relationship with the Blue Jays," she said. "We could never pay those kind of marketing or advertising dollars."

A preliminary timeline shows city commissioners voting to apply for county and state funds next month, a move that will snowball into a string of meetings and votes before the commission can approve the agreement in its entirety next summer. The city hopes to have the project done in time for opening day in spring 2019.

More details will come to light Monday during a public workshop featuring team and city officials. On Tuesday, the city will hold an open house at which residents can ask questions.

Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said she is glad to finally be able to share the long-private plans with residents.

During the lengthy negotiations, the team, whose current contract expires at the close of 2017, flirted with other cities.

But Shapiro said his appreciation for Dunedin kept him hooked.

"It is an appreciation that certainly has logistical benefits," he said. "But even more, it has a community that appreciates and welcomes and creates an incredibly positive environment for us to develop players."

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