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Dormant Vero Beach diamond turned to gold

Mar. 16, 2013
Dodgertown: dormant baseball diamond turned to gol...
Dodgertown: dormant baseball diamond turned to gol...: The town of Vero Beach has survived after the Los Angeles Dodgers moved to Arizona for spring training, ending a 60-year bond. Video by Guy Tubbs.
Members of the Royaux youth baseball team from Montreal enter the Vero Beach Sports Village's dining hall. / Andrew West/

Note to readers

This is the first of a two-day report looking at the future of City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, which has been seeking a tenant since 2012 when the Boston Red Sox moved into their new home, $80 million JetBlue Park at Fenway South.


Special page: Spring training, economic data and more Video: Vero Beach moves on following Dodgers' departure

Photos: Vero Beach Sports Village | Historic Dodgertown

Lee County has spent nearly three years pursuing a Major League Baseball spring training tenant for City of Palms Park.

The primary target, the Washington Nationals, is demanding $36.6 million in upgrades — a price the county says it can’t afford — and there’s no reason to believe another franchise would settle for much less.

With Lee County’s March hotel occupancy rate already approaching sold-out status, such a steep financial outlay to acquire a third spring training team wouldn’t be offset by an economic windfall. That’s because its financial jolt would be confined to the same period Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins fans flock to Southwest Florida.

Further, by expanding their sights 150 miles east to Vero Beach, Lee’s decision makers could see proof that swinging and missing on a major league team is not an economic death sentence. Rather, spring training’s financial impact can be easily replaced by a less expensive alternative, a conclusion supported by a News-Press analysis of five years of key economic indicators for Indian River County.

Vero Beach watched helplessly five years ago as the Los Angeles Dodgers broke their lease and fled to a sparkling $160 million complex in Glendale, Ariz., abandoning the seaside hamlet after 61 years.

Burdened by a $2.3 million annual price tag for the historic but antiquated Dodgertown facility and unable to attract another major league tenant, Indian River officials changed course and partnered with Minor League Baseball Inc. to utilize the property on a year-round basis for primarily amateur sports.

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The result: an expansive economic engine that’s exceeded the financial impact of Dodgers spring training at a fraction of the cost.

“It would be nice to have the Dodgers still here and I think the community would really embrace that,” Indian River Commissioner Peter O’Bryan said. “But I really think with what Minor League’s doing with the year-round activity is having a bigger economic impact than just a hit in the spring when we’re kind of busy and full anyway.”

A recent study of the complex, now known as the Vero Beach Sports Village, revealed it’s produced a total direct economic impact of $21 million to Indian River the past three years. That figure is, at minimum, $6 million shy of what previous studies claimed the Dodgers generated every spring. With such a substantial shortfall, how can the county be better off economically today than five years ago?

The answer, supported by two decades of economic research, is one Lee County and other spring training locales have disputed.

“It’s not at all surprising that communities fare better without a team than they fared with them,” said Philip Porter, a professor at the University of South Florida who has studied the economic impact of pro sports. “They are not economic engines; they are consumption activities here for our pleasure, not our investment. The problem is politicians are looking you in the eye and saying they are doing it for your benefit to bring all this business to town.

“It just doesn’t happen.”

A historic loss for Vero, not an economic one

In 2009, Vero Beach shriveled under the March sun, its glare illuminating a community mourning the loss of its spring identity.

“It’s like being married to someone for 60 years and them all of a sudden not being there anymore,” said Craig Callan, a former Dodgers vice president and director of Dodgertown, who’s lived in Vero Beach for 35 years. “It was shocking.”

Decades of Dodger memories — spanning Jackie Robinson to Kirk Gibson, Sandy Koufax to Orel Hershiser, Roy Campanella to Mike Piazza — remained.

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But the Dodger money, a yearly economic boost local and state economic impact studies pegged between $27-36 million, was being spent 2,250 miles away. Coupled with the depth of the Great Recession in Florida, officials in Indian River, one-fifth the population size of Lee County, feared the worst from this financial fallout.

“The overall economy was imploding back then,” O’Bryan said. “When the Dodgers left, it was just like this ‘What else can go wrong’ kind of feeling. We all felt it would have a major negative impact.”

Economic and tourism data for Indian River reveal a severe decline when comparing March 2008, the Dodgers’ last spring in Vero Beach, to March 2009. Sales tax return receipts slipped 17.3 percent, hotel occupancy slid 16.5 percent and bed tax collections tumbled 26.1 percent.

But in Lee County, which saw the Red Sox and Twins draw a combined 240,387 spring fans in 2009, 28,560 more than in 2008, the same indicators also showed significant dips when measuring the two Marches: sales tax return receipts (-10.6 percent); hotel occupancy (-9.9 percent); bed tax collections (-11.5 percent).

Add in the state’s 13.5 percent drop in March 2009 sales tax return receipts from its totals a year earlier and it’s evident most of Indian River’s slump can be linked to the recession rather than losing the Dodgers.

Five years after the team’s last game in Vero Beach, Indian River’s economy is on the upswing. In 2012, yearly sales tax return receipts nearly returned to 2008 levels (-0.008 percent). Both hotel occupancy rates (+6.1 percent) and bed tax collections (+9.1 percent) increased from 2008’s totals.

Betting on more than Major League Baseball

Part of the recovery can be traced to 2009 when county officials made an offer the Baltimore Orioles could refuse.

Its bottom line taxed by a $22.1 million mortgage and $1.2 million in annual upkeep for the Dodgers’ former facility, Indian River desperately sought a major league replacement. Never a buyer’s market, only one team had a lease up in 2009 – the Orioles.

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“There was definitely a sense of urgency to try and land them,” O’Bryan said.

The team requested $29.6 million in improvements to move to Vero Beach; O’Bryan said the county offered a package “north of $25 million.”

Ultimately, the Orioles found a home in Sarasota, which after failing to lure the Red Sox, agreed to spend $31.2 million in stadium renovations.

“We got a lot of criticism for not getting them,” O’Bryan said. “That was a nervous moment; are we ever going to get somebody to get us off the hook?”

Minor League Baseball answered Indian River’s pleas in April 2009, agreeing to market the facility as an amateur sports venue. The county spent $4 million on upgrades, $25.6 million less than the Orioles’ demanded, while MiLB would cover all operational costs and leasing the property for $1 a year, the same price the Dodgers paid.

Callan, who had retired from the Dodgers, was installed as vice president and manager of the complex, which opened a month later.

“Our goal was to try and preserve the facility and revive it by bringing in other business than Dodgers spring training,” he said.

In addition to 6,500-seat Holman Stadium and the original fields the Brooklyn Dodgers first practiced on in 1948, the 67-acre facility also includes 89 hotel-style villas, a competition-sized swimming pool and on-site dining. Though modernized, the all-inclusive aspects of the village descend from legendary owner Walter O’Malley’s desire to have his organization’s major and minor league teams train in a distraction-free environment that catered to their on- and off-field needs.

This unique design provides Vero Beach Sports Village a singular selling point competitors struggle to match.

“It’s like being at a resort,” Callan said. “It’s what makes us completely different.”

Baseball is still its signature draw, especially during the six-week spring training season. Rather than Major Leaguers, it’s U.S. and Canadian youth and high school teams filling the fields. This year, 120 teams are expected to arrive for week-long training sessions at the facility, filling its villas with any overflow extending into Vero Beach.

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“The teams stay at the sports facility and the moms and dads are at the hotels on the beach,” O’Bryan said. “Everybody really likes that scenario.”

In order to survive, however, the village realized it was necessary to expand beyond baseball and become a multi-sport training venue. The completion of four cloverleaf-style softball fields last year, which cost Indian River $2.5 million, helped land a three-year contract to host the Florida High School Athletic Association State Softball Finals. It will also allow high school and college softball teams to train there this spring.

In addition, the sports village has hosted swimming, lacrosse and football teams, including USF, which held its spring football training camp there the past three Aprils. A new, international-sized soccer field will further widen its athletic reach.

“The facility today is better now than when I ran it when the Dodgers were leaving in 2008,” Callan said. “Now it’s multi-use, multi-gender.”

It also produces a year-round economic impact. In 2012, Indian River’s monthly hotel occupancy rates all exceeded the same figures from 2008, the Dodgers’ last year. Similarly, bed tax collections from last April through December were up over that nine-month span in 2008.

Indian River Chamber of Commerce president Penny Chandler said hotel and restaurant owners are big believers in the village.

“(The village is) busy all the time,” she said. “The hoteliers really have been very happy with the amount of business that’s come in. In and around the village itself, there’s not many restaurants, so that impact is spread throughout the community.

“Certainly a year-round impact is better than a six-week impact.”

Especially when that impact isn’t blunted by the exorbitant costs of acquiring a major league spring training team.

Third spring team's impact in Lee lessened

Expecting the Nationals or any other major league team to provide Lee County the same annual economic benefit as the Red Sox and Twins, one a 2009 impact study estimated at $47.4 million, is unrealistic. A third team’s fans would be arriving in Lee County when hotel occupancy rates are at their highest — March.

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Jeff Webb, owner and general manager of the Hampton Inn and Suites in Fort Myers, said his hotel is currently approaching 95 percent capacity and that Lee’s other “branded” hotels are similarly populated.

“I think the bottom line is having a third team here in many aspects would be great,” Webb said. “But in many aspects it would be a challenge fitting more people into hotels.”

Webb said he’d prefer an option that provided a year-round impact, especially because Lee’s average hotel occupancy in 2012, excluding March, was 54.2 percent.

“Nobody’s going to build a hotel for six weeks,” he said. “It’d be nice to have something more flexible.”

Tamara Pigott, executive director of Lee County’s Visitors and Convention Bureau, said she’s heard opinions similar to Webb’s from other hoteliers.

“But I’ve also heard from those that believe that we should be pursuing the Nationals or another spring training team,” she said. “That would exponentially draw more attention to the area as a baseball mecca and therefore, attract more off-season amateur sports, especially baseball, that can help the tourism industry year-round.”

That’s already happening, according to Jeff Mielke, the executive director of Lee County’s Sports Authority. He said amateur baseball generated $33.6 million in direct economic impact for the county in 2012, more than tripling that of the Vero Beach Sports Village last year.

“Amateur baseball provides more direct spending than one of our spring training clubs does, and it’s stretched over 10 months of the year,” Mielke said.

Why then, would it make sense to spend $36.6 million to attract the Nationals to City of Palms Park, a facility Mielke said was used for 70 amateur event days in 2012?

“It’s a very good argument,” he said. “It gets to a point where you have to decide when is the community saturated with this one month of business.”

Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker said that point has arrived.

“I don’t think (the Nationals) can dominate the conversation anymore,” he said. “I don’t think we can afford a single focus. We’ve exhausted our capacity to spend any more money on spring training.

“Even with a third stadium, we need to refocus on our beaches and the tourism we’ve enjoyed all this time that has helped pay for baseball.”

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