Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Need a lift? Call me at Lyft

If it’s Thursday or Friday and you’re heading somewhere in the Bradenton-Sarasota-Tampa Bay area, now you can call on me and I’ll give you a “Lyft.”

I recently became a driver for Lyft to make some extra money (not to write a book, though that might happen), and on March 30-31, did my first drives for Lyft.

I’ll share my experiences and the tips I learned the hard way here.

Stay tuned.

April 1, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , | Leave a comment

Want a job? Put your family’s business on the street

The city of Sarasota has been playing the damage control game in a big way since a man named Douglas Logan was named to a lucrative job as its “homeless services director.”

Some, myself included, see this job as a sinecure for a jobless former executive akin to the way nonprofits “store” former politicians in “development” positions as they await a new office to run for.

The good thing is that the city is paying this guy in the range of $120,000 a year plus benefits to do something in the area of homelessness, despite his lack of experience in the area.

Back in the old days, you proved your qualifications for a job based on factors that included education, experience and a desire to perform the work. Logan’s big problem is that his past experience included being a sports executive, and none of his past work was in social services that might even touch upon homelessness.

Logan threw the “veteran card,” always used today, and has touted his brief experience in Vietnam in the Army in the 1960s as a qualification for dealing with the homeless.

An article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on July 6 had him make what is now the usual claim: basically, he’s an alcoholic and his son is bipolar.

So he has experience with two big reasons that people are homeless: alcoholism and mental illness.

OK, using that logic, I should be the head of cardiology at a hospital since I’m a veteran who served in the Indian Ocean during the Iranian hostage crisis. As for the heart issue, well, out of respect I won’t put my family’s business on the street. But I’m waiting for a local hospital to call with a six-figure job since I am – the standard listed above – qualified for such a job.

Logan and his supporters keep bleating that he’s qualified and he said in the article that “his experience developing ‘public structures’ gave him a keen understanding of how to create public/private partnerships, adding those are ‘exactly’ the skills needed to develop the infrastructure necessary to alleviate homelessness in the region.”

As if that isn’t enough doubletalk, try this grab for sympathy:

“At the urging of City Manager Thomas Barwin, Logan — who said he is ‘pretty stoic when it comes to criticism’ and was not initially planning to delve into his personal life — talked about being intimately familiar with two of the biggest problems that the homeless struggle with: Mental illness and addiction.

“The Vietnam veteran said that ‘when I came back in 1967 I had a rocky 10 years becoming a civilian again’ and that he has not had a drink since 1977. In discussing his son’s bipolar disorder Logan said that ‘mental illness is not an abstraction. I know it. I understand it.’

“ ‘This job is important to me for some very obvious reasons,’ he added.”

Oh, well, in that case I guess Logan must be very qualified. The commissioners seem satisfied with a recent report that he delivered on how to solve homelessness in Sarasota even though none of it is very original. I guess when you’re getting six figures a copy-and-paste job is better than nothing.

I suppose the big problem is that every solution to homelessness revolves around getting homeless people into housing of some kind, and not everyone likes the solution if the “housing of some kind” is within 500 miles of their home. Hiring someone who basically ran Major League Soccer into the ground and can only lamely talk about his 10 years spent adjusting after a year in Vietnam is hardly a sign that homelessness is a priority in Sarasota.

In any case, experts on the problem have been ignored, so I suppose amateur hour was inevitable.

July 9, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , | Leave a comment

Good news arrives quickly

The news landed in my email faster than I expected. My tenants are vacating my house on Monday, the report came in from my rental agent.

It was earlier than I expected; I didn’t expect to have unfettered access until March 1, but was welcome, nonetheless.

So on Wednesday, I’ll be driving down again (second time in a week!) to see the house, and this time I get to go inside. I’m actually planning on bringing some clothes and stuff that I’m not using and that can be hung up in the walk-in closet.

I might also grab a folding table and chair out of the storage unit to bring with me so I can enjoy lunch while I’m there.

It might seem strange to some, being a landlord – albeit of the “accidental” variety – to be so emotional about a property, but the house is more than just a collection of concrete blocks and stucco.

Back when I lived in the house, I worked for The Bradenton Times, an online news website owned by a fellow former Marine and Manatee county commissioner. He had several other businesses, including a lot of small homes in Bradenton that were rented out. Part of the fun of working in his offices was the fact that the news outlet was in the same space as the rental operation, and you couldn’t make up the characters who climbed the big wooden stairs, almost always to talk to the rental person.

I know that as a landlord, his concern for his properties was mainly to keep them in good condition so tenants would rent from him and pay their rent in full and on time, and maybe it was because he had so many and he had never lived in them that he had a small connection to them emotionally. They were his business.

I had lived in the house that was being rented to my tenants, and it was never a business except when it had to be. It’s reverting to its former status and while I will miss being less than a mile from work, at least I will have this place back.

Let’s see, I look forward to:

  • My days off, when I can visit friends, go to Sarasota and walk around the neighborhood.
  • My garage, where I can store my stuff until I’m unpacked, and keep the stuff I want to keep on site instead of storing it somewhere else at an expense. Even better, the place to put my car.
  • The master bedroom and master sitting room, where me and the cats can sleep and play.
  • The two other bedrooms, one for my computers and one for my Advanced Squad Leader setups.
  • Again, the garage, where I can leave my telescope partially assembled and drag it out for impromptu observing sessions on a whim.
  • My backyard, where I can also take the telescope, and can sit in the screened-in lanai and look at the wetlands and listen to the crickets at night.
  • The feeling that my life is mine, and no more rude awakenings to the roar of lawn equipment on Thursday morning, and the howling racket that goes on all day Thursday from lawn equipment.

Owning a home is the American Dream, and I can no longer deal with the split of owning a home, but not living in it. Moving back to my house is my effort to reclaim part of what belongs to me.

February 19, 2012 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Game over for the Postal Service?

Watching the current travails of the U.S. Postal Service has been for me a kind of déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say.

I’ve bored my readers before with tales of my postal employment from January 1983 to June 1994, but bear with me while I mention it again.

I began working for the Postal Service at its Hicksville, N.Y., Sectional Center Facility in January 1983. I had taken the postal test – you could if you were a veteran, and I was – and asked to be considered for the new Western Nassau SCF – near Roosevelt Field in Garden City — that would be opening up soon. Only a couple of months later, I was called in, given a physical and told I was hired. Western Nassau wasn’t finished yet, but we’d work at Hicksville until it was.

The great attraction of the Postal Service was good pay, benefits and union representation. It wasn’t like the mail was going away anytime soon back then, though the recession of the early 1980s had really hit the system hard. Mail volume was coming back, though.

My starting salary was a princely $10.01 an hour, increased a few months later to $10.02 and then $10.56 an hour. With night differential of 10 percent and Sunday premium of 25 percent, I could afford to rent an illegal apartment in Plainview and even buy a bad used car. Still, I was free of my parents and on the move.

The main thing about the Postal Service was that then the great promise was that it was what I like to call “the Stasis Service.” It was here yesterday, today and would be here tomorrow. If you wanted, you could spend your whole life doing the same job at the same location in the same building for the same bosses, surrounded by the same people, or so it seemed.

I was of an ambitious bent, but career development was never the Postal Service’s strong suit. There was no formal way to get training for management or other jobs, and the union stratification meant that the test you took to get into the Postal Service could determine job assignments decades into the future.

In any case, as a mailhandler, I soon discovered that that craft was considered “the strong back and weak minds” of the Postal Service. In New York I never heard that phrase, but I heard it a lot in Florida after I transferred to West Palm Beach in January 1986.

The Postal Service’s view of technology was that it was all fine and dandy to use it to improve service and the transportation of the mail, but I think the top brass was blind-sided by the possibility that the same technological advances that could make the Postal Service more efficient could also eliminate it.

In January 1983, people may have had computers but very, very few had access to online services or the Internet and e-mail. Even in January 1986, there wasn’t much going on in the online realm. But I still remember reading sometime in 1987 that a local high school had been connected to the “Inter-net” and that this was the future.

The Postal Service just soldiered along, content to use the Private Express Statutes to keep competitors out of the paper mail business and the technology to improve its operations. As employees like myself bought computers, got connected to America OnLine and started exchanging e-mail, we realized that there was a whole system outside the Postal Service that could be a means of communication. But managers rarely listened to us workers back then.

I recall one manager telling me that senior citizens would never figure out computers, and serving them would be a profitable niche for the Postal Service for a long time to come.

In the 1992 presidential race, there was much talk about the “Information Superhighway” and even a discussion of whether the Internet could be that highway. Even after I finished my college degree in 1994 and quit the Postal Service in June of that year, there was little doubt among the Postal Service’s managers that this online thing was just a fad that would go away, and the Postal Service would end up at the top of the scrum.

This conviction extended to the bottom of the system as well, and people constantly reminded each other that past “financial crises” had gone away, and we had all gotten nice pay raises and cost-of-living increases, as well as contractual bonuses in arbitration anyway. The public might gripe and complain, but they’d never abandon the Postal Service’s services for the uncertain online world.

In the early 1990s, there had been another of those postal financial crises and there was much talk of cutting back on management and administration. “The people who don’t touch the mail” were never as big in number as the workers thought, but the word began to be that they would be cut back. However, while a few acting managers might be temporarily demoted to craft work, they inevitably went back to management, and more management and administrative jobs at all levels were created and eventually posted.

Top brass would announce that “change takes time” and most seemed to hope to score their pensions before they had to do anything to make that change real.

Just before I quit the Postal Service, I attended a career awareness conference and saw part of the reason the Postal Service was in the state it was in. The event was run by about a hundred people, all or mostly rural letter carriers, and all on some sort of injury compensation and light duty. Their work had to be made up by others, while they spent their workdays making photocopies, writing reports and generally looking busy in the Equal Employment Opportunity offices then present in virtually every postal installation.

It disgusted me, and the conviction expressed that god wouldn’t let anything bad happen to the Postal Service proved to me that these people were deluded. I decided I didn’t have a future in the Postal Service and moved on.

The future
Sad to say, the Postal Service is facing a date with destiny, and it’s not pretty. Financially, as people transact more and more business online, revenue will fall and so will service. Saturday delivery is probably going to be the first to go, and more consolidation of facilities is probably on the horizon, too, despite the ongoing battles to save facilities.

Through attrition and retirements, the Postal Service can unload most of its work force and use more technology to get the job done.

Two of the biggest mailing periods are, I hear, no more. I remember the mad Christmas rushes, usually starting with Thanksgiving and ending a couple of weeks into January, when the place just seemed piled up with mail.

I worked in the letter cancelling operation for the first half of my shift and setting up, loading into the system and sorting first-class and priority packages in the second half (the former was called the 010; the latter was on the teepee).

It was a good feeling to work unsupervised and efficiently in the latter job, and I was a master at sorting on the teepee not only packages but magazine bundles. There was something so wonderful about that last work night before Christmas, sending off the packages to the post offices where they’d be delivered, and knowing I’d work on Christmas Day for the triple time pay and get my days off later in the week.

Busy but not as crazy was tax time. On the night of April 15 (unless it fell on a Saturday or Sunday, and then it was another day) people would drive up and drop off their tax returns, some of them doing their taxes in the post office lobby. We’d cancel their envelopes and send them to Atlanta. That rush began about two weeks before tax day and died about two weeks later.

Those days are gone. Most folks still send Christmas cards – but not as many – and packages, but most tax forms are filed electronically.

The technology has changed, and so much the Postal Service. This time, there’s no bailout or rescue.

Closing troubles
A big problem the “Stasis Service” has faced is closing certain centers, especially cancelling centers.

Back when I was a reporter for The Bradenton Times, the issue came up when part of the postal facility at Tallevast on the Sarasota-Manatee county border was up for changes. Basically, the Postal Service wanted to send mail cancelling – the 010 – up to Tampa. Employees would get transfers to Tampa and would have to commute, but would still have jobs.

One issue raised by the postal union was that the loss of the postmark would be a blow to the area. That’s an issue that’s often raised, though to be honest I really wonder who cares where their mail is postmarked or what the postmark reads. We almost never see our envelopes after they are processed through the postal system.

Focusing on symbolism or “sense of community” surrounding postmarks will keep the Postal Service from saving itself – unless that’s the goal of the unions.

The road ahead for the Postal Service is rough. There is still a need for some paper mail – I, for one, still get a lot of bills and magazines through the mail – and more addresses are coming on line. People expect good service, and expect it delivered regardless of the Postal Service’s financial issues.

Can the Postal Service deliver amid its fiscal woes? That’s the open question right now.

January 28, 2011 Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Little excitement as 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 looms

I met Buzz Aldrin 20 years ago.

It was at an event at the South Florida Science Museum in West Palm Beach, Fla., and he was there because the planetarium was named for him. He talked with a local radio talk show host named Jack Cole about the space program, and then signed books. He was genial, gracious and tolerant of the very long line of people who came to see him.

A reporter for a small local newspaper was there, and she asked me, “So what did this guy do anyway?” It stunned me that someone could have so little knowledge.

A few weeks ago, I did a story about a woman in Bradenton who sewed the flag that went to the moon on Apollo 11 and is still up there. The exhibit’s artwork was less interesting than the artifacts, including a jigsaw puzzle of The New York Times’ front page from July 21, 1969, and newspapers from Houston.

A 22-year-old girl was looking at the exhibit and I walked up to her to ask her what she thought. She seemed pretty bright but admitted that she actually had had no idea that there had been space missions to the moon in the past, and that men had actually walked on its surface. Florida’s public schools are focused mainly on standardized testing because that’s how school administrators get $150,000 a year jobs in the system, and subjects like history and science are considered disposable.

It’s hardly a surprise. Many people I talk to have no idea that there was a time when giant Saturn V rockets took men into space. No one has left the gravity of Earth since December 1972, 37 years ago, when Apollo 17 set off to explore the mountains of the moon. I’ll grant you, the space shuttle has done some good work and the International Space Station is important, too, but 37 years of orbiting the Earth is a bit much.

A few months ago, I met a journalism colleague named Pat Duggans at a library in Sarasota. He was talking about his book “Final Countdown,” about the end of the space shuttle program, and asked the audience which mission was the first they remembered. I replied, “Apollo 8,” the first mission to the moon. Duggans said he had talked to several people in and around the space program who still believed, even after all the missions to the moon, that Apollo 8 was the most exciting.

For the first time, humans were breaking free of the bonds of earth. For the first time, men were riding atop the Saturn V. For the first time, human eyes (as opposed to space probes) would see the “dark side of the moon.” And on Christmas Eve 1968, a live TV broadcast from lunar orbit brought it all home to us that three members of the human race, while studying the surface of an alien world, wanted us to share it with them.

It was an exciting time, but the best was yet to come. I still remember the excitement building for the Apollo 11 mission, which was to be the first to land men on the moon. In my family, we prepared for the party. It was a Sunday night, and we learned that the moonwalk would happen at 9 p.m. The scene was re-enacted in the movie “Apollo 13” and I’m sure many people still remember it, watching that ghostly image of Neil Armstrong coming down the ladder and then stepping off into the universe.

It saddened me that future missions – save for Apollo 13 – did not get the attention they deserved. Those astronauts who walked on the moon and orbited its surface saw the most astonishing wonders and we learned an enormous amount about the moon, and even today we’re learning from those samples they brought back more than 35 years ago. And a mission in October will set off an explosion on the moon, visible from the Earth to those of us with telescopes, that may open up even more wonders.

One time, I was at my grandmother’s house and the TV was on. And on the TV was a scene from the moon, with the caption “Live from the surface of the moon” under a shot of a man in a space suit. Imagine that, live pictures from another world. In 1972, people, it was a big deal to me if to no one else.

I dreamed of being an astronaut and going into space, but a stunning incompetence with math and the political currents of the age worked against me. I had to set my sights lower and watch as others set off for what’s beyond Earth. The closest I’ve gotten in aboard commercial airliners; maybe I can have my ashes sent into space after I die, but I’ll never be a spaceman.

People who were still interested in space exploration were called “space cadets” and ridiculed. Who really cared about a bunch of guys going somewhere and bringing back a bunch of rocks? It was all a canard, some said, and there are still those who believe the Apollo program was shot on a soundstage at a top-secret location, and that the men who went to the moon were threatened with awesome punishments if they revealed the truth.

It sounds almost absurd to say that I believe the astronauts when they say they went to the moon. It’s like saying computers don’t exist.

I can wonder at the awesome achievements in the past, and the achievements to come. Maybe I’ll live to see humans return to the moon, watching on TV as they explore that place just 240,000 miles away. Maybe they’ll find the old Apollo hardware and take us on a tour, showing us the descent stages of the lunar modules, the flags, the Rovers from Apollos 15, 16 and 17, the tracks from feet and wheels, and that golf ball that Alan Shepard hit on Apollo 14.

Maybe a new generation will learn that there was a time when people went to the moon and did things that scarcely seem believable today with equipment that seems impossibly ancient. But it happened, it really happened.

On July 20, 2009, for a moment I think we should forget about our problems, our cares, our worries, and honor that day when human beings decided it was time to become, as Carl Sagan once said, “citizens of the cosmos.”

While I was still working for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, I was doing one of my least-favorite jobs – editing the calendar listings – when I noticed that a local science museum was having an event with Dr. Edgar Mitchell, who walked on the moon on Apollo 14. He and Alan Shepard explored the Fra Mauro region of the moon, and it was the most awesome honor I can imagine as a reporter to have had the chance to shake hands with a man who had gone to the moon. He was friendly, gracious and very generous with his time, both with me and with the people and children who came.

He answered the kids’ questions and shared some of his ideas and philosophy with them. Mitchell is truly a man of the cosmos, even if some of his ideas are not totally accepted. Still, when a man has walked on the moon, I’ll listen to what he has to say.

Another voice is that of President John F. Kennedy, who of course made this declaration in his “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs” on May 25, 1961:

“I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior.”

But the best expression is, I think, the speech he gave on Sept. 12, 1962, at Rice University in Houston:

“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it — we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. …

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Maybe July 20, 2009, will be the beginning of a new time when we reach out and really begin a work that’s more than just going someplace, but making a better life for us all.

Of course, that’s from a charter member of the “space cadet” corps, but I can always hope.

July 5, 2009 Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vero Beach got burned in the stadium game

Sarasota is getting nervous, and what happened in Vero Beach is what’s got some elected officials hopping around like they’ve got fire ants in their pants.

Many a tear has to fall, the saying goes, but it’s all in the stadium game.

See, the city of Vero Beach and the county of Indian River in Florida were treated to a Dodger-blue screwing by the team from the city of the angels, and now the spring training complex that served the Dodgers for decades sits empty. Since the leaders of the city feared development, instead of letting the Dodgers pay off the bonds on the site and then sell it they kept it and are paying the interest on the bonds.

I remember back in 2001 when the “Dumb Dodger Deal” was being debated at government meetings and in the pages of the newspaper where I worked. The team’s owners waxed poetic about how much they loved Vero Beach and how the spring training tradition was so strong and they wanted to keep it, but the city and county needed to reciprocate or they would enact the nuclear option, and move to Arizona.

Oh, but there was hope! If the city and county floated bonds and bought the complex for a couple of tens of millions of dollars, then leased it back to the team for a buck a year, why, they’d ink a deal to stay in Vero Beach for 20 years.

Those in favor believed that whatever it cost, it was worth it to keep the Dodgers’ spring training in Vero Beach until 2021. After all, many people had moved to Vero Beach to be near their beloved Dodgers, and you didn’t want some shortsighted cheapskates let the team head off to the land of cactus when some tax money could keep them here. The money borrowed could have gone to libraries, schools, roads, etc., but the idea of Vero Beach without a team was like cats without cat litter.

Opponents were vocal, and made some good points. Their ads against what they termed the “Dumb Dodger Deal” were in the paper and the letters column. They said there was a lot in Vero Beach already, and if the Dodgers left, well, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Ultimately, the Dodgers played the “amateur baseball” card. They’d let school teams and tournaments use Holman Stadium, they promised, and the city and county would make money hosting tournaments and other events.

The deal went through, and I went to “A” games and read in the scorecards how the Dodgers’ ownership and the city and county leaders had secured the future of spring training in Vero Beach with the deal.

So I recently read a few stories in the media about how Dodgertown is now a ghost town and local businesses are suffering. The Dodgers are not having spring training in Vero Beach anymore. What happened? What awful offense did the city of Vero Beach and the county of Indian River commit that caused the team to leave?

Well, nothing. The team announced that it had decided that it was more logical to have spring training close to its L.A. base in Arizona, and since it didn’t own the Dodgertown complex, it could just walk away. Of course, the political leaders figured they’d better try to grab another team, but that hasn’t worked out.

So articles in the national media have told of the empty stadium, which is making Sarasota worry about what will happen in 2010, after the Reds are gone. The Reds had made some pretty hefty demands and were turned down, so they are off to Goodyear, Ariz. Some in Sarasota are worried about the city becoming a ghost town next spring.

I don’t think that will happen. There are lots of people in Sarasota who don’t come here for baseball.

When it comes to the stadium game, though, cities in Florida have to beware of the “We love it here but we’ll leave in a half-heartbeat if we don’t get what we want” game. Vero Beach played the game, and got screwed anyway. That’s baseball.

March 20, 2009 Posted by | The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stadium game’s extra innings continue

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: The stadium game never ends.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that the Baltimore Orioles were upset with the plan for the team’s spring training.

According to my able former colleague Todd Ruger on Dec. 28:

The Orioles letter said the proposal undervalued the economic value of bringing the Orioles to Sarasota and fell short of providing the fields and facilities the club needs.
“It is also noteworthy that the Reds found a spring training home elsewhere … at approximately the same project costs as presented by the Orioles,” said the letter, which was signed by Orioles attorney Alan Rifkin.
The Orioles’ executives had already turned down an offer for a renovated stadium during November negotiations, instead asking for a $57 million deal that included $7.2 million from the state and $2 million from a group of private investors.

Well, the reality is that the Reds pretty much rolled the city of Goodyear, Ariz., and they are sharing the complex out there with another team. Back when times were good, governments were eager to hurl money at teams to be a part of the party; after what’s happened in the past few months, things might be a bit different.

Still, the deal is not dead and can always come back to life, as Ruger noted in his story:

But the Orioles’ letter did not completely shut the door on coming to Sarasota if the community has an alternate proposal.
Commissioner Shannon Staub, the commission’s biggest proponent for bringing the Orioles to Sarasota, said she is brainstorming ways to sweeten the deal.
“We’ve got a patient here who’s not in great shape, but he’s not dead yet,” Staub said. “It’s going to be up to my board, and the city: ‘Is it worth hammering out another proposal that includes some more contribution?’ “

What’s next? Anything can happen in the stadium game.

January 7, 2009 Posted by | The business of sports | , , , , | Leave a comment

Extra innings in the stadium game

Unlike baseball, which ends when the third out is made in the ninth inning or the winning run scores, the stadium game never ends.

Is it any surprise that in the aftermath of the Boston Red Sox spring training affair, Sarasota city and county officials have decided that Baltimore Orioles spring training may not be so bad, after all. The word is in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

The current Ed Smith Stadium would either be refurbished or replaced at a cost of $40 million to $50 million. It’s not like we’re in a recession or anything, right?

As Roger Drouin notes in his H-T story:

Sarasota is vying against Vero Beach, Lee County and Fort Lauderdale, which are all pitching deals to the Orioles.
“The Orioles look forward to receiving a proposal from Sarasota,” said Orioles’ lawyer Alan Rifkin. “And we expect the process to continue.”

As I said before, stadium deals are like Bill Compton in “True Blood.” They never die, they just re-emerge from their coffins.

When it comes to sports teams and stadiums, politicians are sort of like children going through a well-stocked toy store three weeks before Christmas, and eager to get someone else to buy them all those lovely toys. Sometimes, politicians lose all sense of proportion and lose sight of the people they are serving. You can’t blame children for being children, but we have to hold politicians to a higher standard. “I want it” is just not justification enough for blowing taxpayer money on a little-used stadium.

While we’re on the topic, Fred Grimm over at the Miami Herald really hits the nail on the head in his latest column: Stadium plan won’t rev up the economy.

Grimm writes: “Economists don’t agree on much — except on the economic payoff from publicly financed sports stadiums. ‘We’ve got 30 years of consensus,’ [Brad] Humphreys told me Wednesday. ‘Those promised benefits almost never materialize.’ ”

But again, politicians refuse to see reality, Grimm writes:

One might think that 30 years of consensus and an ever-growing body of independent impact studies might give pause to public officials before investing several hundred million in a sports stadium.
Or that 30 years of economists saying “No!” might prompt our own elected officials to hesitate before they give that final “Yes!” to a deal financing a stadium and parking garage in Miami for the Florida Marlins.
Not likely. “Our argument just doesn’t win. We’ve been making this argument for years and the subsidies haven’t stopped,” Humphreys said.
Instead, public officials across the country have indulged in dogged disregard of overwhelming evidence and voted to donate public land and finance stadiums and cover construction costs over-runs with tax money and then hand over control of the building, concession profits, even the naming rights to some billionaire team owner.
Of course, sports operations enable public officials to rationalize signing away $400 million or $500 million or $600 million by offering up their own, privately financed, not very independent economic impact studies promising thousands of new jobs, giant dollops of new sales taxes and the magical regeneration of shabby neighborhoods. The one promise sports owners always keep: that elected officials will get access to luxury skyboxes where they can hobnob with the very, very rich.

And just for a final pitch, check out this story in The Palm Beach Post: FAU stadium plans short of cash after naming deal is dropped.

I have a blog post about FAU’s football program and its origins that I have yet to put up. The dream of a stadium was there from the beginning and it looks like it will not appear in the foreseeable future. A lot of projects, worthy and otherwise (and this one is in the latter category), have fallen out of the realm of possibility in the current financial crisis.

And here’s FAU’s student government chief, who has apparently downed some serious Kool-Aid if he’s saying this. His is the last word for now:

“I think the stadium is really, really important because it will increase the value of our diplomas in the long run,” said FAU Student Government President Abe Cohen, referring to how the stadium would raise the school’s profile, increasing its popularity and making admission more competitive. “More people will want to apply here.”

November 13, 2008 Posted by | The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Final out made for now in stadium game

One thing about sports is that when the final out is made or the clock runs out, the game is over. Really over.

Of course, sometimes it isn’t. See, for example, the 1972 Olympics when the U.S. and Russian basketball teams played.

Almost all of the time, though, it’s over, over, over.

So when I read that Lee County had made a deal with the Boston Red Sox for a new spring training complex, it was almost a relief. See the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for details.

Basically, Lee County officials rolled over and let the Sox have their way with them. That’s the way it normally works in the stadium game, with public officials desperate to keep or gain a team no matter the cost and team officials bleating about how eager they are for a deal, and the government has to foot the bill.

There were vocal advocates on both sides of the debate, and those who favored bringing the Sox to Sarasota are now grousing, while opponents are cheering. We lost, they say, and in so doing we won.

City and county commissioners often pay lip service to the idea of doing what the citizens want, unless it conflicts with what local officials want. Hurling money at a team and hoping some of it bounces off and hits needy locals is a time-honored practice that usually enriches the team and leaves the government holding the bill.

So it’s over, right? Well, there are still the Orioles, who are eyeing Vero Beach’s once-famous Dodgertown but are, of course, looking out for the best deal for themselves.

As I mentioned before, some in Sarasota saw the prospect of the Orioles coming for spring training to be kind of a booby prize, like getting sugarless gum or vegetables when going trick-or-treating, but they may be moved to go overboard to bring a team – any team – to the area.

For right now, though, citizens’ wallets are safe. The game is over, for now.

November 2, 2008 Posted by | The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sarasota chases the dream in the fifth inning of the stadium game

Baseball sage Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” and his wisdom shows itself true in Sarasota’s seemingly endless pursuit of Red Sox spring training.

As reported in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Oct. 22:

“Lee County’s step forward came a week after Sarasota called off negotiations with the Red Sox because of a shortfall of up to $15 million. Sarasota officials are trying to raise $70 million for a stadium at Payne Park, six practice fields and two clubhouses.

Seven hours after they announced negotiations were over, county and city officials said they would continue talking to the team.

Next Wednesday, the Sarasota County Commission will hold a hearing to decide whether to raise its tourism tax, a big chunk of the $60 million in potential funding for a Red Sox stadium.”

The original news was that the deal was off, there was no way to raise the money with the seized-up credit markets, and taxpayer opposition was too stiff. But like Bill Compton, the vampire on HBO’s “True Blood,” some things can’t be killed. The effort to give the Red Sox a deal that will persuade them to move north from Fort Myers found new life.

Of course, Lee County isn’t exactly sitting back while all this is going on. The Red Sox are in the middle of a 20-year lease, but there is an economic incentive for them to pull out and move elsewhere.

The Red Sox are thrilled, no doubt, to see both areas, despite their stretched budgets and warnings of more cutbacks and layoffs to come in essential services, ripping their hair out trying to come up with funding formulas to get the Sox to come or stay.

Some people believe that the entire economic future of the Sarasota County region depends on getting the Red Sox, but as Herald-Tribune columnist Eric Ernst pointed out in the Oct. 22 paper:

“Studies that link professional sports teams to economic windfalls tend to be commissioned by the sports industry, which has a vested interest.

One somewhat humorous exception arose this year as the Seattle Supersonics basketball team tried to get out of its arena lease with the city.

‘The financial issue is simple, and the city’s analysts agree, there will be no net economic loss if the Sonics leave Seattle,’ the Sonics argued in a court brief, as reported by the Seattle Times on Jan. 18. ‘Entertainment dollars not spent on the Sonics will be spent on Seattle’s many other sports and entertainment options.’

If nothing else, the Sonics example should remind everyone to view pro sports’ economic value claims with more skepticism than some of Sarasota’s decision-makers have shown so far.”

Meanwhile, there was talk of a deal to bring Baltimore Orioles spring training to Sarasota and spend a few million to spruce up Ed Smith Stadium. The Orioles have been talking to Vero Beach and Indian River County since the Dodgers walked away from their 20-year deal that was reached in 2001 and decamped for Arizona.

But to most government officials in Sarasota, the thought of the Orioles coming to town is like getting vegetables during Halloween trick-or-treating. The big prize is the Red Sox, in their view, a team with a recent tradition of success, and the Orioles are just a bunch of orange birds.

So while all this is going on, the city of Bradenton and Manatee County have a deal with the Pirates. I wonder how long before the Pirates start making noises about leaving, and how much money they’ll demand to stay.

It’s all a part of the stadium game.

October 23, 2008 Posted by | The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment