By Roger Drouin
SARASOTA -- A week before a major deadline in negotiations between the Cincinnati Reds and the city of Goodyear, Ariz., both sides signaled their eagerness to cement the deal.
Goodyear has until next Thursday to secure the funds needed to build the spring training facility it has promised the Reds. If the city does not have the money by then, the Reds are no longer bound by an exclusive agreement with Goodyear and can negotiate with other cities -- including Sarasota.
On Thursday, the Goodyear city council met behind closed doors before announcing their intention to come up with the necessary money to bring the Reds to town.
The Reds, in turn, said once that funding is secured they are ready to make the move to Goodyear.
"If they come up with the funding, wherever they get it from, we are going to Goodyear," said Reds executive John Allen.
The news that the Reds' 12th season next year is more and more likely to be the team's last in Sarasota struck a chord among backers who fought to keep the Reds here.
"I think their fans have no interest in going to, as they call it, 'Where Is It? Arizona,'" said Virginia Haley, director of the Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "And we clearly want this team here."
"Yes we came to the plate late, but there was total, solid support from people who live and work here, the fans and the players."
Her comments came just hours after the Reds defeated the New York Yankees 12-8 at Ed Smith Stadium before an overflow crowd of 6,980.
"It's a shame," said Steve Queior, president of the greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, of the possibility of the Reds leaving. "It's definitely bad news for the economy."
At least one Sarasota official said he is not ready to give up the fight yet.
Sarasota Vice Mayor Kelly Kirschner said he would try to set up a meeting with Reds' owner Bob Castellini early next week.
"Now the Reds have two solid offers," Kirschner said.
Pat Calhoon, Sarasota's sports facilities manager, said he would try to keep baseball in town if the Reds leave.
Calhoon called the Baltimore Orioles three weeks ago to let the team know Sarasota can get a stadium deal done. Baltimore trains in Fort Lauderdale, but the team is reportedly looking to move if a stadium deal does not come through.
The team already has a presence in Sarasota with its minor league spring training games at Twin Lakes Park on Clark Road.
On Feb. 12, the County Commission approved $17.6 million in bed tax money to fund the renovation of Ed Smith stadium.
But that decision came nearly two weeks after the Reds entered into an exclusive agreement with Goodyear, meaning the team had to break off talks with Sarasota. Since that time, Allen has visited Goodyear at least two times to talk to city officials and tour the spring training site.
The city needs to come up with $32 million to buy the land and build the clubhouse, practice fields, bullpens and offices for the Reds.
Right now Goodyear's stadium is only set up for one baseball team, the Cleveland Indians, when it opens for spring training play in 2009.
Goodyear has already issued $75 million in bonds for the stadium, and city officials said securing a second bond should not be a problem.
Kirschner said he understands why Goodyear is pursuing the Reds.
"They see this as economic development tool," he said. "And it is pretty smart. They have both teams from Ohio. I am assuming they are banking on getting all of Ohio's baby boomers to move there."
Sarasota's effort to keep the Reds hit several snags over the past year.
After city voters narrowly rejected a $16 million property tax increase in November, county commissioners thought that killed the stadium project and started talking about using bed tax dollars to pay for other projects.
The stadium rebuild was revived by city leaders, and the County Commission ultimately voted 4-1 to allocate the $17.6 million in bed tax dollars.
"We belatedly got our act together," said Haley, with the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But we have a history. Look at how long it took us to get the library."
Calhoon, Sarasota's sports facilities manager, said he is still hopeful the Reds will stay here.
"But I'm also a realist," he said.