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Dunedin frets Blue Jays spring training flight

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Published:   |   Updated: March 25, 2013 at 12:06 PM
DUNEDIN -

City commissioners are poised to move forward on a plan to keep the Toronto Blue Jays in town for spring training. It’s a strategy that stresses a regional approach to negotiating with the team and so far doesn’t rule out the possibility of building a new stadium.

Parks and Recreation director Vince Gizzi told commissioners the city’s longstanding status as The Blue Jays’ spring training home doesn’t make the city immune to the potential departure of the team.

“Since 2000, Florida has lost six spring training teams to Arizona,” Gizzi said.

The Blue Jays are Canada’s only Major League Baseball club and have played in Dunedin since the team’s inception in 1977. Toronto, which still has four years remaining on its contract to play at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, is one of five teams whose contract with their respective spring training host expires in the next five years.

Despite the team’s positive, even nostalgic, relationship with the city, there has been speculation that the Blue Jays might be looking for a new training site. Team officials told Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers earlier this month they are exploring their options.

The talk follows Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to set up a permanent fund aimed at keeping Florida’s spring training facilities competitive. The state estimates spring training has an economic impact in Florida of about $750 million.

Eggers said that although the Blue Jays have become ingrained in the city’s cultural fabric, team officials are dissatisfied with the stadium’s distance from its practice field.

The plan to entice the team to stay in its original digs includes estimating the economic impact of spring training in Dunedin, forming a negotiating team and working with the Blue Jays to assess the team’s facility needs.

City officials also will study how other Florida cities that host spring training have worked with their teams to keep both sides happy. Gizzi said talking to team officials about what they want in a spring training facility is paramount, as is assessing the economic impact of spring training in Dunedin.

In 2000, the state helped fund $10 million in stadium renovations in Dunedin, Gizzi said.

City commissioner Julie Ward-Bujalski said the team needs to seek input from residents, businesses and county and state officials. Such unified support would be key if the city wants to seriously consider building a new stadium.

“The Blue Jays are not just a Dunedin issue. They’re not just a spring training issue,” she said. “So it’s important that we get that stakeholder buy-in.”

The city commission’s next step is to formally adopt the strategy at the April 4 meeting, something likely to pass given the board’s unanimous support Thursday. Ward-Bujalski warned that the task of trying to keep the Blue Jays in town shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“This is going to be a sensitive issue for years to come,” she said.

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