VERO BEACH - Vero Beach’s economic recovery after the Los Angeles Dodgers relocated to Arizona proves a community cannot just financially survive, but thrive, after losing Major League Baseball spring training.
But that evidence doesn’t mean Indian River County officials wouldn’t consider getting back in the game.
A clause in the county’s lease with the Vero Beach Sports Village, which operates a year-round, amateur and youth sports centered venture at the former Dodgertown complex, allows it to sublease the facility for a major league team to use for spring training.
Indian River Commissioner Peter O’Bryan said there’s been no “serious” discussions with a big league team since the Vero Beach Sports Village opened in May 2009. Even though O’Bryan admits there’s no question the county is better off economically today than it was when the Dodgers were winding up their 61-year stay in Vero Beach in 2008, he’d be open to hosting another Major League team.
“We’d have to look at what we’re being asked to fund, what team is it, what’s going to be the potential return and then whether it all makes sense at the end of the day,” O’Bryan said.
Such a reunion appears unlikely, however, when examining the recent trend in spring training relocations. Since 2000, nine franchises have moved from a Florida county. Five (Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers and the Dodgers) left the state, settling in two-team stadium complexes in Maricopa County, Ariz., which has a population of nearly 3.9 million. Of the four who stayed in-state (Baltimore Orioles, Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays and Washington Nationals), three moved to an area at least three times the population size of Indian River, the 33rd largest county in Florida, with about 140,000 people. Only the Rays, who moved in 2009 from Pinellas to Charlotte County (population 160,000) in an effort to expand its fanbase, relocated to an area close to Indian River’s population.
“The Vero Beach Dodgers are the old model – big team coming to small town, making an economic impact,” said Craig Callan, a former Dodgers vice president who spent 30 years working at Dodgertown, the last 20 as the complex’s director. “The new model is teams coming to bigger towns that have higher population bases that can support multiple teams like what’s happening in (Arizona). They’re all 20 minutes away from each other.”
Callan should know. Before retiring from the Dodgers to become vice president and manager of the Vero Beach Sports Village, he designed Camelback Ranch, the team’s $160 million spring training stadium in Goodyear, Ariz., that it shares with the Chicago White Sox.
“Spring training has become about filling that stadium and the financials,” he said. “You build a two-team stadium like we did for Arizona, one team’s on the road, the other one’s at home every single day. That’s 30 full days that stadium’s generating income versus 15 at a one-team facility.”
Indian River County’s small population also results in a relatively small tourist tax output, which communities generally use to fund capital projects like spring training stadium construction and renovations. In 2012, Indian River collected a total of $1.63 million in tourist taxes while Lee County pulled in $26.3 million.
With one-quarter of those funds already dedicated to paying off the $15.9 million in debt Indian River owes on the former Dodgertown facility, O’Bryan said officials would likely have to seek a general obligation bond to fund the estimated $25 million in improvements a major league team would likely seek. Such a measure would have to be approved by Indian River County voters.
“There’s no way we could generate that much with the tourist tax,” O’Bryan said. “That might be the best way to do it anyway – yes or no on the ballot.”
With the national tide turning against the public funding of stadiums for professional teams, a no vote by Indian River would be the most likely outcome.
Just as unlikely, O’Bryan admits, is another Major League team ever again calling Vero Beach its spring home.
“I don’t see us getting another one, quite frankly,” O’Bryan said. “We’re a quaint, seaside town and I don’t think that the kind of place teams are looking for.”
With the economic success of the Vero Beach Sports Village, that reluctance may not be a good thing for the city’s baseball fans, but it’s the best case scenario for Indian River County’s bottom line.