Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Stadium game is now the youth sports field game

Ten years ago, in July 2001, I was a newly minted copy editor for the Vero Beach Press Journal on Florida’s east coast. Fresh from a second stint with the dying Boca Raton News, I immersed myself in the wonders of a new city, an apartment and the rough and tumble of city and county politics.

I parachuted into town amid the discussion and debate over the “Dumb Dodger Deal,” as local opponents dubbed it. The Los Angeles Dodgers had a tradition of spring training in Vero Beach since, well, forever, it seemed. There was a Dodgertown, a Dodgertown Elementary School, a Dodgertown Golf Course and a horde of folks who retired to be near their beloved team in the city that proclaimed itself “Dodgertown” in its flights of fancy.

But that was about to come crashing down to earth, because the Dodgers’ ownership wanted to leave. Its problem was that it owned the baseball complex on which the major league team trained for its season and on which the Single-A Vero Beach Dodgers of the Florida State League entertained fans over the summer.

There was even a Rookie-level Gulf Coast League team on the site.

The trouble was that the Dodgers had heard the siren song of Arizona, and wanted to do spring training there. There were plenty of local governments just aching to be screwed over in unfavorable “incentive” deals and dying to build stadiums, and Florida was just, well, so Florida.

Plus, it was hard to find a buyer for the complex.

But when you need a sucker for sports, the nearest city council or county commission or local sports authority is just a phone call away.

The Dodgers made it clear that they wanted to make a long-term commitment to the Vero Beach area and were eager to stay, but that the city and county had to help out. The plan was that the city and county would float bonds to buy the entire complex, then lease it back to the Dodgers. Of course, local government officials were loath to believe that the Dodgers might then be more inclined to leave because they’d promised to repay the bonds if they broke the iron-clad 20-year lease on the land.

Of course, if the Dodgers took the land back, they might then sell it to (gasp!) developers who might build houses on it, something the laid-back small town wanted no part of.

The Dodgers threatened to leave if they didn’t get the deal. Hint: They got the deal.

I remember going to Vero Beach Dodgers games that summer and reading in the game programs that the Dodgers had gotten out of the real estate business in Vero Beach and now could focus on developing players. There was a lot of bad blood, and talk of possible economic consequences if the Dodgers then left, now that they could go in a hurry.

After the season ended and the 9/11 attacks happened, the first hints that things were not quite going as planned began to appear. The golf course closed down, the convention center shut down and there was talk that the Dodgers were going to leave anyway.

In fact, the first two above items had been threatened if the deal hadn’t gone through, but had happened anyway.

In the ensuing years, the Dodgers eliminated operations at Holman Stadium and Dodgertown, moving spring training to Arizona, eliminating the Gulf Coast and Florida State League teams and eventually leaving town. The local elected suckers (oops, officials) decided not to invoke the take-back provision and decided to pay the interest on the bonds and find a new team to occupy the site.

There was no success, and today the site is run by an outfit called MiLB: Minor League Baseball. (See stories related to the operation here.)

My former Stuart News colleague Ray McNulty pointed out in his July 26 column:

Not to be a pessimist, but, frankly, I have my doubts about Dodgertown’s future.
Serious doubts.
Worrisome doubts.
I see what’s happening with the Minor League Baseball group — which, it seems, can’t get out of town fast enough — and I can’t help but wonder if the folks in Indian River County are going to be stuck with a once-hallowed, now-vexing piece of property it can’t lease, can’t sell and can’t afford to maintain.
There are just so many what-if scenarios, most of which end badly.
What if Soapy Immell, the 79-year-old local businessman who has been negotiating with MiLB to take over the operations at what is now known as the Vero Beach Sports Village, doesn’t deliver the $1.2 million the county wants by Friday and plans to place in escrow to protect itself in the event the lease is broken?
What if MiLB, which says it lost $1 million here last year and expects to lose another $500,000 this year, can’t find anyone else willing to assume what’s left of the five-year lease that doesn’t expire until May 2014?
What if the MiLB bunch bails, choosing to pay the $300,000 buyout required by the terms of the lease, rather than risk losing millions more across the next three years?
What does the county do then?
At the moment, a more pressing concern is the cloverleaf of youth baseball fields MiLB wants the county to build, at a cost of $2.5 million, on land acquired from the city of Vero Beach.

Having failed to attract adult baseball to their towns, I think that local government officials in Florida have discovered a new way to be screwed by businesses: Bring in companies to build baseball fields for youth sports.

This kind of game just seems to be busting out all over, with cities like North Port and Newberry (near where I live in Gainesville) falling for the fields of schemes. North Port recently got screwed out of $450,000, according to my former paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and the Gainesville Sun is reporting that Newberry is dreaming youth sports dreams.

The usual clichés of “young families” and “teenagers” are invoked, as well as the ubiquitous “Build it and they will come” meme, which has been so overused as to be capable of making me physically ill. If I hear a project called a “Field of Dreams” one more time, I swear I’m going to walk east until my hat floats.

As with the stadium game I’ve mentioned, these companies prey upon economically desperate Florida municipalities who think sports and youth baseball tournaments are the answer to all their problems, and thus have to put multimillion-dollar fields on the credit card to avoid having the next town down the road steal their glory.

All that’s happening is that they’re lining up to be taken for a hell of a ride, in my view.

And no one is listening, it seems, to the lessons of the past.

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July 28, 2011 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Politics, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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