New stadium stars, stumbles
There was applause aplenty and victory hugs all around among backers of a new $54 million spring training home for the Cincinnati Reds at the Aug. 21 Sarasota City Commission meeting.
The board voted unanimously to take the next steps toward pledging at least $9 million, plus hundreds of thousands annually for operation and maintenance of a new stadium with major "wow factor."
That investment will ensure the area continues to reap an annual windfall of some $37 million a year drawn here by spring training, according to estimates from city consultants and its sports facilities manager, Pat Calhoon.
The lofty estimate went unchallenged at the meeting, and there was not one critical sentiment voiced from the commission table, or from the audience.
But the morning, the city's stadium boosters were met with a splash of cold reality from the Sarasota County Commission in the form of hard questions and undisguised skepticism. It did set a public hearing for Sept. 13 on proposals to impose a fourth cent of sales tax on tourist rentals, and dedicate a half of those proceeds to the new stadium, to help meet looming deadlines should approval be forthcoming.
Chair Nora Patterson wanted to ensure that the total proceeds from the tax did not exceed the agreed upon $15 million county contribution, in light of city projections showing it was depending on more than $17 million from the new tax.
Other county commissioners cited the "loose" agglomeration of revenue streams listed by the city -- the sale of naming rights, land leases to as-yet-nonexistent hotels, restaurants, a spring training museum and a complex array of cash and equipment contributions from the Reds -- plus fears the county might somehow be on the hook for any shortfalls.
City Manager Mike McNees assured the county commission it would be the city that provides any necessary financial backstop, and all revenue projections were "conservative."
"This all seems pretty loosely tied together," Patterson said. "You can shuffle peas under walnut shells all you want," but before obtaining commission approval dedicating the tourist tax to back a bond issue, "we'll need some solid figures."
North County coalition
Options to replace the existing Ed Smith Stadium, or refurbish it, were dismissed when the extent of pollution in the old dump site beneath it became known. The new site is across 12th Street, northeast of Ed Smith.
County commissioners seemed unimpressed that the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and Sarasota Area Convention and Visitors Bureau had both overcome longtime reluctance to diverting the new tax from tourism marketing, and were now lined up behind it. It was basically a North County urban coalition, Commissioner Paul Mercier said.
They promised a thorough examination of the issue at its public hearing.
Under the current plan, the Reds will come up with $10 million in various forms spread over many years, and the team has promised to remain in Sarasota for another 30 years, a highly unusual pledge. The state is promising a $15 million grant, if it deems local financing plans sound, to help communities struggling to keep spring training from defecting to Arizona.
That complex application must be in Tallahassee by Oct. 1.
For city leaders, a road trip to Bright House Field in Clearwater was a turning point.
"You could feel the 'wow' factor from the moment you walk in," said Commissioner Lou Ann Palmer.
That stadium cost $34 million to build; it opened in 2004.
By Rick Barry