Saturday, January 11, 2014

Jays Spring Training Move in Limbo?

   The Blue Jays plan to join the Houston Astros in relocating their spring training site on Florida's Atlantic Coast hit a snag just before Christmas, when residents of Palm Beach County expressed concerns about increased traffic and noise the project would bring.
    On December 19th, Palm Beach city staff asked county officials to evaluate other sites in the county for a stadium complex.
   The Blue Jays have been dissatisfied with their current spring training site in Dunedin, on the Gulf Coast.  The club is unhappy with the less than state of the art conditions at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, citing inadequate parking, washrooms, and concessions for fans, as well as the distance between their practice fields and the stadium.  Things were hush hush for a while, but the Jays let it be known this fall that they had entered into an agreement with the Astros for a possible move to Palm Beach Gardens.
   Toronto's agreement with Dunedin ends in 2017, while Houston's lease with their spring training site at Kissimmee expires in 2016. The Jays would be looking to move their High A affiliate out of Dunedin as well.
   In a prepared statement, Palm Beach Gardens city manager Ron Ferris said:

   "As we have continually stated, the City of Palm Beach Gardens currently does not have a financial commitment from the two major league teams.  After months of community feedback and public presentations, we are requesting that Palm Beach County staff explore alternative sites in locations outside the City of Palm Beach Gardens."
   
   The Astros had been working for months on a deal with Palm Beach Gardens after the Florida state legislature approved $50 million in incentives for the two clubs to build a new joint spring training complex last April.
   The proposed stadium site is located along I-95, near PGA Boulevard.  The site is near two schools and an environmentally sensitive area, and would require zoning changes before being approved.
   In a city council meeting this past week to determine the site's fate, council voted 4-1 against approving the project in the proposed interstate location.  Over 250 community members attended the meeting, including VP Joe Biden's brother Frank, who is a Palm Beach County resident.
   Supporters of the site said that the city was missing out on a great economic opportunity.  Local developer Joel Channing, who is part of a local group in favour of the project, told the Palm Beach Post, "It was a bad day for baseball.  We can't be certain that we won't reap the benefits to our youth athletic programs that would have resulted from having 12 free additional baseball and soccer fields."
   The $50 million the state approved was an attempt to save spring training on the Atlantic Coast.  The Washington Nationals recently announced that they will be leaving their site in Brevard County, and if there were fewer than 4 teams in the area, the Marlins and Cardinals would be allowed to leave their site in Jupiter.
   Palm Beach council has stated that the project isn't dead - it just won't happen in that location. One option that has been put forward  is to have neighbouring St Lucie County consider allowing the complex to be built there.  A real estate attorney from Boca Raton, 40 minutes south of Palm Beach Gardens, has suggested that there is ample land in his area to develop the project.
    The Astros have indicated that they would look at alternative sites in Arizona if a plan for the Atlantic Coast region isn't finalized by the end of the 2014 season.
   The Blue Jays have held their spring training at Dunedin since their inception in 1977. The city has a legal obligation to the Jays until at least 2017.  Toronto has two five-year options that could extend the contract if they don't move.
   There likely is more than a little gamesmanship behind these moves.  Palm Beach Gardens was likely upset over the lack of commitment from the two clubs, who likely didn't want to make a formal announcement of any sort until a stadium deal was finalized. The Astros, with their lease ending in 2016, are in a bit more of a bind than the Jays, who are in the driver's seat with Dunedin.
  With Palm Beach Gardens looking at other sites in the county, and hoping maybe that their neighbour St Lucie steps up, the proposal is not off the table, but it's hanging on the edge. With $50 million in state funds available to keep spring training alive on the Atlantic Coast, and the economic benefits that it brings, it's hard to believe that a suitable site can't be found somewhere in the area.
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