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Reds say $10M is their top offer
City leaders want team to pay more for a new spring training stadium

By MIKE SAEWITZ



mike.saewitz@heraldtribune.com

SARASOTA -- The Cincinnati Reds want to stay in Sarasota, but team executives say $10 million is as much as they will pay for a new spring training stadium here.

The news comes a week after city commissioners demanded that the Reds increase their contribution, saying that the deal for the $54 million stadium could be dead if the team doesn't come up with more cash.

In a letter received by city leaders Monday, Reds Chief Operating Officer John L. Allen emphasized the team's desire to make a "long-term commitment" to Sarasota, and remained hopeful that the city would find a way to dedicate enough money to make the stadium work.

"At this point, I think the question that the city has to ask itself, 'Does Sarasota want to have Major League Spring Training in our community?'" Allen wrote.

It's a question that the city commissioners will have to answer next week. While city leaders were dismayed at the letter, staffers are looking at ways to either reduce the estimated $26 million cost to the city, cut down on the size of the stadium project or reach out to a private donor.

"I don't want to give up," said City Commissioner Lou Ann Palmer. "We're not 6 feet under yet. Maybe 3 feet under."

The letter was the latest piece of a difficult negotiation process on funding the state-of-the-art stadium.

"This is not good news," said Palmer, whose birthday was Monday. "It's a sad birthday for me."

City and team officials have spent three years lobbying state legislators for money toward the effort. They were finally successful this year, when Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill that could provide $7 million for the stadium.

Coming up with the rest of the money -- and drawing up a detailed financial plan in just three months -- has been more difficult than anyone imagined.

The proposed facility is set to be near Ed Smith Stadium, on 12th Street.

The Reds began by offering $3 million toward a new stadium, then went up to $5.9 million, and finally to $10 million last week.

"We have met the city's wishes to increase our participation ... and have doubled our commitment from approximately 10 percent to 20 percent of the estimated construction costs," Allen wrote. "While $10 million may not seem to be a huge commitment to some, it needs to be measured in the context of the Major League Baseball industry."

Allen went on to say that only two teams have come up with comparable contributions for spring training stadiums: the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies. And both teams were from "large market teams unlike the Reds," he wrote.

He said that the Reds had "carefully analyzed" the contribution, and ruled that $10 million was going to be the limit.

That would leave the city's share to be about $26 million. City staffers suggested increasing property taxes to come up with that kind of money. A half-cent tourist tax would provide an additional $15 million.

Commissioners did not want to hear it. Raising taxes for a new sports stadium would be unacceptable, they said, sending staffers back to negotiate with the Reds.

"I just don't think the city is going to be able to come up with $26 million," Palmer said. "There's just no way that's going to happen."

The commissioners will discuss the deal when they meet on Monday. Pat Calhoon, the city's sports facilities manager, said staffers may have "overstated" the cost to the city. The figure of $26 million was a "worst-case scenario," and he and the finance director are looking at ways to reduce that number.

He said he's trying to see whether there are any private citizens who want to be a "major part" of the new stadium. He'll also be talking to Reds officials to see if they would accept a scaled-down project.

"We'll work feverishly at this, leading right up to Monday's meeting," he said.