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  1. Rays

Pinellas Commission gives preliminary nod to tax money for Blue Jays

CLEARWATER — After a confusing debate, the Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday voted to help Dunedin move forward with an $81 million upgrade of the Toronto Blue Jays spring training complex.

The vote came amid a broader discussion about a pot of money from the Tourist Development Council bed tax, a 6 percent tax allocated to marketing and capital projects.

Commissioners received a 58-page report from Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the marketing agency for Pinellas County, outlining requests to spend the money from seven projects, including the pitch to fund $46.5 million of the stadium upgrade.

But confusion reigned before the board approved the request to help Dunedin.

Board chair Janet Long told commissioners the group would only vote to move forward to negotiation phases for the projects, which would then return for a final approval before checks are issued.

Commissioner Dave Eggers, a former Dunedin mayor, said he didn't understand why the projects needed to return for final approval since they had already been vetted by Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

"It's a good time to give some indication how we feel," Eggers said. "I'm a little confused on this process."

But Long said the commission would lose leverage in future negotiations if it granted final approval Tuesday.

County administrator Mark Woodard said the Tourist Development Council recommended the projects move forward and asked the commission for direction so staffers could start negotiations for the projects.

Among them: $26 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; $6 million for the American Craftsmen Museum in St. Petersburg; nearly $5 million for Ruth Eckerd Hall; and another $2.5 million for two sports complexes in Clearwater.

Blue Jays team president Mark Shapiro asked the board to provide "affirmation" on where it stood on the project. Although known primarily for spring training, the team uses the Dunedin facility year round, Shapiro said.

"This is the only place that we sought to go forward," Shapiro said, adding: "We hope for the next 25 years that Dunedin and Pinellas County is our home."

The team, he said, wants to stay in Dunedin because of its relationship with the city and county. He said it is often overlooked that the team spends millions on capital expenses to maintain the current facility.

For instance, the Blue Jays say they are one of the only teams responsible for field maintenance staff, supplies and equipment. The team estimates it spends about $1.1 million a year on those expenses, which would add more than $25 million over the next 25 years.

Last year, Shapiro called for a "state-of-the-art" facility that could give players the resources they need to "achieve their potential." He said the current facility, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium at 373 Douglas Ave., wasn't cutting it.

The project would give the team an opportunity to stay in the city where it has spent every spring since the team's 1977 debut. The Jays are the only team in Major League Baseball history that has never changed its spring training site. The team claims to have an annual impact of about $70 million.

To reach this point, Dunedin officials and the Jays held quiet negotiations for more than two years. The team's contract with Dunedin expires at the end of 2017. The Blue Jays and city officials are negotiating a new license agreement, which includes terms for revenue and expense sharing.

In addition to the contribution from the county, the renovation plan calls for $13.6 million from the state and about $5.6 million from the city. The team would shoulder about $15.7 million.

A slew of public officials and Pinellas residents urged commissioners to take action without delay.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said he was confused on what action the board was taking Tuesday. Still, he said it was essential to approve the project since Pinellas County is the epicenter of spring training in Florida.

"Spring training has been a part of Pinellas County for a century," Cretekos said. "The Blue Jays have been there all their life."

Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski pointed out that the city cannot apply for state money until the commission approved the project.

"It would be great to get some level of support," she said, noting the city and team are negotiating as quickly as possible.

John Keller was one of several Dunedin residents who reminded the board that the Blue Jays are Canada's only Major League Baseball team. And that helps funnel millions of dollars from Canadian visitors.

"There's 36 million people in Canada who know about Dunedin," Keller said.

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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