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Mayor: Dunedin to start pursuing other spring training teams

The Toronto Blue Jays have held spring training in Dunedin since the team was founded in 1997. Dunedin’s 5,509-seat, 12-acre stadium, known as Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, is 3.5 miles from the 23-acre Englebert Complex training facility.
The Toronto Blue Jays have held spring training in Dunedin since the team was founded in 1997. Dunedin’s 5,509-seat, 12-acre stadium, known as Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, is 3.5 miles from the 23-acre Englebert Complex training facility.
Published Nov. 26, 2013

DUNEDIN — Wanted: One Major League Baseball team looking for a good spring training home.

Mayor Dave Eggers announced Thursday that he is going to start contacting teams that might be candidates to replace the Toronto Blue Jays if that organization pulls out of Dunedin.

The Jays and the Houston Astros are pursuing a proposal for a joint spring training stadium in Palm Beach Gardens on Florida's east coast.

"They're doing their thing, so we're going to do our thing," Eggers said.

Though Eggers and Jays president Paul Beeston had agreed to talk by phone once a week, Eggers said he manages to connect with Beeston only about every other week. He said Beeston has indicated that "he likes it here" and that the team will finish its contract, which expires in December 2017.

Eggers estimated that the Jays should know whether the stadium talks in Palm Beach Gardens will be successful in about five or so months. If that plan fails, he hopes the Jays will be open to negotiating with Dunedin.

"I've told him very candidly that, until we as a commission decide differently, our goal is to have Major League Baseball here — with them at the top of our list — but … that we're going to start exploring some other interests just to have dialogue," he said. "I think it's incumbent upon us to be ready. He certainly understood, he respected that. … I've shared with him that I will tell him after I've had those contacts with those other teams, just to be fair and forthright with him."

Eggers' comments were part of a spring training update at last week's commission meeting, during which city Parks and Recreation director Vince Gizzi recapped Dunedin's efforts so far to woo the Jays. Those include a visit to Toronto to present conceptual stadium alternatives and a $7,500 economic impact study that showed Jays fans spent $80.3 million on food, hotels and other entertainment around the Tampa Bay region this year versus $71.1 million in 2009.

"What we're trying to do is get ourselves ready for dialogue, whether it's with the Blue Jays or another team," Eggers said. "At the end of the day, there's nothing really new. The process moves along."

Commissioners disagreed Thursday on when the city should start tapping potential members for a regionwide group of stakeholders who can offer advice and contacts as the city pursues baseball.

Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said it's never too early to start gathering outside input. However, Vice Mayor Julie Scales feared the city would be wasting the time of some "really very busy people when there's not really some meat to chew on."

Commissioners ultimately agreed to let the city staff members who are steering the baseball talks decide when the time is right to assemble a stakeholder group.

Eggers and City Manager Rob DiSpirito have provided roughly monthly updates on the status of the baseball talks, but said they would start giving updates biweekly after several commissioners complained that they and residents feel out of the loop.

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"What I hear from people is that they're not hearing anything from us, so … they feel we're not doing anything and that's just not the case," Bujalski said.

"Even if there isn't a lot of traction right now," added Commissioner Heather Gracy, "it's still important to communicate that."

Echoing the mayor's sentiments, Scales noted that "this has been a frustrating situation for everyone because the Blue Jays have been very clear that they just simply are not ready to talk to us."

If the Jays choose not to talk at all, she said, "I don't think baseball is the only game in town. I think everything is on the table."

The city's stadium and spring training facilities "are properties that could be very valuable for other uses in the city, so I think we need to be looking at that too," she said.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or ksummers@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.