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Lawmakers Listening to Spring Training Recruitment Pitch

The Florida economy has long been in foul territory, but some are saying the state should still try to make sure as many teams are playing ball in Florida as possible.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, told the News Service of Florida Monday that while the state probably cannot allocate money to lure new baseball teams to train in Florida as it has done in previous years, at least two will soon be in position to move from Arizona and the state and local communities should try to convince them to come here in other ways.

“We have an obligation to do what we can as a legislative body to keep the teams we have in the Grapefruit League and make sure they stay here,” Fasano said after being notified of the possibility of the relocations during a recent committee meeting. “Florida once was – and still is – the spring training capital of the world, and we need to keep it that.”

Fasano, who chairs the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations committee, said after hearing from the Florida Sports Foundation that the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers’ leases in Arizona’s Cactus League will soon expire and that they could be targets for possible relocation to Florida. He said he knows it will take a combination of state and local enticement, though he also knows how bad the timing is.

“It’s going to be tough to be talking about giving major sports franchises tax incentives when I’ve got constituents who are wondering how they’re going to pay their electric bill,” Fasano said. “It’s going to take dollars and incentives that we don’t have.”

But that does not mean the state should not step up the plate in other ways, he quickly added.

“This is a conversation that has to be developed,” he said. “Maybe (the solution) is having some type of long-term plan, something where we don’t have to implement it until the economy gets better.”

Sports Foundation spokesman Nick Gandy said that Florida has not “sat idly by and watched teams leave,” though he acknowledged that sometimes problems have arisen on the local end that struck out deals. Gandy said the state has appropriated $75 million for stadium repairs and recruiting efforts in both 2001 and 2006.

Gandy added that he is glad to hear lawmakers are receptive to doing more, even if they have to be creative about it in tough economic times.

“We’ve seen comments from legislators that ‘maybe we got complacent and thought it was always going to be the way it was in the 90s’,” Gandy said. “Arizona’s gotten a little reactionary now, so maybe that will start to turn. More members of the Legislature are starting to say we have to protect what we already have in Florida.”

However, the key to making the change complete is not having money for recruitment come from one-time appropriations, Gandy said. He said Arizona levies a rental car surcharge in its two counties that house teams, but spring training is too widespread in Florida.

Gandy praised Fort Myers and Lee County for agreeing recently to use local tourism money to build the Boston Red Sox a bigger stadium after demand increased following the team’s first World Series win in almost 100 years.

“They’re being very aggressive down there,” Gandy said. “I hope folks see them stepping up locally.”

Gandy said that any efforts to lure new teams should focus on teams that play their home games closer to Florida than many of the West Coast teams that call the Cactus League their spring training home.

“For a majority of teams in Arizona right now, (moving to Florida) is something that’s not likely to happen,” he said. “For all those California and other West Coast teams, it’s a long shot at best that they would entertain moving.”

He added that while no single idea for spring training revenue appears readily available yet, “it’s good that this is being talked about.”

“We did a survey this past spring that showed that there’s $750 million of economic impact (from spring training), so this is something worth hanging onto,” Gandy said.

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