Spring training: Losing Blue Jays would be 'catastrophic' for Dunedin
Jays want Dunedin to upgrade aging spring training facilities to remain competitive
Jane Sweeney doesn't carry a single piece of Blue Jays merchandise in her boutique clothing store on Dunedin's Main Street, but when March comes around, she still hits a home run in sales.
"Oh my gosh, so many people coming in, so many people from Toronto, there's definitely energy that's not always here," she said.
Like many businesses in the small town of 37,000, her sales jump 35 to 40 per cent when spring training begins.
But this year, with baseball comes uncertainty. The Blue Jays are in negotiations with local officials to renovate their aging facilities and the spectre of the team leaving when its lease expires at the end of 2017 is keeping people here up at night.
"It would be catastrophic for many of us. I think it would make a huge impact," Sweeney said.
It's estimated the Blue Jays bring in $85 million to Dunedin and the surrounding county during spring training. Signs are everywhere welcoming thousands of Canadians who live and visit the area during the five-week stretch the Jays are in town.
Down the street at the Clear Sky Draught Haus, manager Mike Maglio hires at least half a dozen more servers and kitchen staff to deal with the extra customers.
"If the Blue Jays did leave, it would devastate Dunedin," he said. "Every restaurant, not just us. Just the amount of people that come in, the sales pick up, it's busy season for us."
Small and quaint
The challenge for Dunedin is that the stadium and practice facility the Jays use here are relics of a bygone era.
Small and quaint, both are lauded for their old-school feel and ease of access to players. But the two are six kilometres apart and players must be bussed back and forth each day.
Comparing Dunedin's Florida Auto Exchange Stadium with its 5,509 seats to its newer cousins, one baseball scribe described it as going from a mansion to a trailer park.
New Jays president Mark Shapiro says his expectations were tempered before he first saw the facilities.
"This is a functional situation that has a lot of the old spring training charm to it, but the reality is when your competitors who are competing against you for wins,every single day are operating in facilities that are more advanced, that offer more opportunities for your players to improve and develop, you need to make sure that you're not only keeping up with them, that you are moving ahead of them."
Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski met recently with Jays officials and hopes a deal can be reached.
"We are a small town, but size doesn't always matter," she said. "It's really a matter of the heart we have here and our heart bleeds blue."
The big question is where a new facility would go. The current stadium is boxed in by homes on one side, a school and a library on the other, leaving little room for expansion.
The training facility is similarly surrounded. Dunedin itself is almost fully built, offering no easy alternative.
The details of what the Jays want, and how much that might cost, is covered under a confidentiality agreement that expires in September.
Shapiro says that, right now, the club is giving Dunedin every opportunity to make it work.
"I think the most productive way for us to get a deal done with Dunedin is for us to solely focus here, and at some point the progression will be if we can't get things done within a timely fashion, we'll set a deadline."
This isn't the first time the Jays have flirted with moving away from the only spring training home they've ever known.
Two years ago, the team nearly had a deal with the Houston Astros to move across the state to a shared facility in Palm Beach Gardens, but it was scuttled by neighbourhood opposition.
Shapiro also has experience moving spring training facilities. In 2009, while with the Cleveland Indians, he moved that team from Winter Haven, Fla., to a shared facility in Goodyear, Ariz., with the Cincinnati Reds.
But Shapiro says this situation is different. When Cleveland was looking to move, he says the residents of Winter Haven showed little enthusiasm for keeping the team, quite the opposite of what he's seen in Dunedin,
"The pride and passion people feel towards the Blue Jays, that is absolutely clear. The challenges are the wherewithal of a small town."
Mayor Ward Bujalski admits that raising the money to build or upgrade the facilities is a challenge. She's hoping the county and state will step up, perhaps by allowing Dunedin to access funds raised from the state tax on hotel beds.
She also hopes the Jays see the relationship with Dunedin as more than just business.
"You don't split family, you work through it, you figure out what works for everybody and you move forward and I feel really strongly that we'll do that."
Sweeney is also optimistic the Jays, the city and other partners will find common ground.
"It's easy to say 'we'll go someplace else,' but you can't get Dunedin anyplace else."