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Springing to life

Sarasota woos Sox for training camp

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 19, 2008
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SARASOTA, Fla. - There is nothing at Payne Park now, at least nothing that would indicate minds are churning and deals are being worked out and meetings are being held. Just a large park, this corner containing a storm-water pond, 12 tennis courts, and a past-its-prime (if it ever had one) topless bar. But here, on this swatch of land, the City of Sarasota is fixing its baseball dreams.

With the Cincinnati Reds set to depart Sarasota and the Grapefruit League for Goodyear, Ariz., the city and Sarasota County have determined that the Red Sox brand - one with international allure - could be a boost to the city's economy and a boon to the team.

But they have to get the Sox to come first.

"The way I look at the Red Sox is they're not just a baseball organization," county commissioner Joe Barbetta said. "I think we'll start seeing things happen in the community that we might not see for years to come that might be accelerated. I can actually see economic development be accelerated and redevelopment be accelerated because of an impetus like this."

That's why, despite the obstacle of a Sox lease with Fort Myers that ends in 2019, Sarasota launched a campaign to get the team to leave its spring training home since 1993 for a city 80 miles to the north. The team has deep roots in Sarasota. Payne Park, where the new stadium would be built, was once the spring training home of Ted Williams's Red Sox, the team wintering there from 1933-42 and 1946-58.

The Red Sox have a buyout clause in their lease that stipulates they can opt out after 2009 for $1 million, which drops $100,000 each year thereafter.

"Discussions have been very productive, and from the first day that they initiated the discussions, they made it clear that they viewed the Red Sox as a very unique and special opportunity," Red Sox chief operating officer Mike Dee said last night. "They were very aggressive and have moved forward and have dedicated the efforts of their staffs - the city and the county - to move this thing along at a fast pace and get something done."

But things are not done yet, especially after a meeting between Dee and Lee County commissioner Ray Judah Wednesday. There remains the possibility of a late charge by Lee County. Although a stadium with an integrated minor league facility had been one of the Sox' top requests, that would not be possible in Sarasota, while Lee County has experience in building such complexes, having constructed one for the Twins. The Sox have separate facilities in Fort Myers.

Tale of two cities

For Sarasota, it's a push that began in spring training this season, after officials learned the Reds would vacate Ed Smith Stadium after next year. It's a push that got more forceful in recent weeks, especially in recent days, with Sox officials heading to Florida this week both to watch the team play the Rays and to get closer to representatives of Sarasota and Fort Myers.

A deadline - which Barbetta called soft - is set for the end of October for the sides to work out a deal. For now, meetings are taking place with both cities. Most of the Sox' front office was at Tropicana Field Tuesday, including Dee, team president Larry Lucchino, chief marketing director Sam Kennedy, and architectural guru Janet Marie Smith. Three Sarasota officials joined them for the game.

"We weren't actively shopping when Sarasota knocked, but we were certainly engaged and focused on addressing long-term needs both from a player and fan perspective," Dee said.

According to The (Fort Myers) News-Press, Judah, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, said there are five possible sites in Lee County for a new spring training facility for the Sox. He would not divulge those sites. But because the talks with Sarasota seem to have heated up in recent days, Lee County appears to be a bit behind.

Sarasota is far enough along in the process that it has hired a negotiating team to deal with the Sox and accommodate the team's demands to what the city can provide. That team, Barrett Sports Group LLC, is the same one that worked on the deal for San Diego's Petco Park, the stadium built for the Padres under Lucchino.

"What they're looking for, we consider that their Christmas wish list," said Jeff Seward, chief financial planning officer for Sarasota County. "The stadium with 9,999 seats, along with a practice field and 350 parking spaces. At the split site, five practice fields, [including] one lit practice field, and a 50,000-foot clubhouse for player rehabilitation. Depending on our capacity, once we finalize that, we can look at elements that can be negotiated. Do they need five, or would four work? Do they need a practice field at Payne Park, or would a half-field work?"

In decline

Currently, the only facility is Ed Smith, a 20-year-old, 7,500-seat park that is showing wear. Doors don't open. Seats are weathered. The training room is antiquated. It's a far cry from City of Palms Park, the site in Fort Myers that the Sox seem ready to leave. Ed Smith would become the minor league facility, with the major league team based at Payne Park, far closer to an urban environment than the Sox' current digs. Barbetta envisions a trolley system linking the two, which on a recent drive were five minutes apart. To create a space large enough, the city and county have purchased an additional 1.2 acres adjacent to Payne.

Among the biggest draws for Sarasota are the other teams that train in close proximity to the city. In Fort Myers, only a handful of teams spend their springs within 90 minutes of the Sox - the Twins, Pirates, Rays, and Reds. In Sarasota, that number expands to include the Tigers, Blue Jays, Phillies, and Yankees.

Between the renovation of the Reds' park and the construction at Payne Park, the cost has been estimated by various outlets at $60 million-$80 million. Seward said the entire financial package should be prepared by Oct. 14, when the request to increase tourist taxes goes before the board of county commissioners.

"The tourist development tax would be the primary funding mechanism," Seward said. "Last week an advisory committee recommended the raising of that bed tax from 4 cents to 4 1/2 cents. Depending on where we land with interest and fees, we're looking at that additional revenue being able to generate $45 [million] to $51 million [over 30 years] for bonding capacity.

"Our capacity will be our starting point. We won't start from their wish list and work backwards. We'll start from our capacity and work up."

Still obstacles

For now, there are still issues.

"The primary ones are whether the Red Sox as an organization will contribute in terms of capital and operating expenses," Seward said.

There are ticket revenues, and naming rights, and the cost of the facility, among other concerns on both sides.

"In a perfect world, we'd love to get this locked up in the next month or so," Barbetta said. "Because the planning stages to get it out of the ground starting in March or April for the 2011 season [are approaching]. So we're kind of on that internal timetable. There's been no pressure from the Red Sox organization, no pressure from anybody."

There was optimism from Barbetta as he strolled around Payne Park Monday. He seems to believe that, for the good of Sarasota and the Red Sox, it would be hard not to make this deal. He acknowledges the stumbling blocks, but does not dwell on them. And he believes that it should work, that it will work.

"A meeting of the minds, of the numbers working," Barbetta said. "I think that's the only thing left."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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