Ten Years of Spinning Spring Training

Guest Correspondence

BY CATHY ANTUNES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY JUL 20, 2019

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Sarasota’s deal with the Baltimore Orioles. In exchange for a $31 million dollar stadium renovation, the Orioles promised to “reinvent spring training.” Their partnership with Sarasota was to include a Cal Ripken Youth Academy at Twin Lakes Park, and the Orioles said they would raise $10 million to fund it. Ten years later, that promise is proven to be meaningless PR spin. The promised Cal Ripken baseball academy never materialized. However, the Orioles are lobbying the Sarasota County Commission for more millions — another $16.5 million taxpayer dollars for stadium repairs in the coming decade. Reinventing corporate welfare, maybe. Reinventing spring training? Not so much.

The 2009 deal inked with the Orioles does little to protect Sarasota taxpayers from endless requests for upgrades. The Orioles’ cite the contract’s requirement that Ed Smith stadium be kept up to “major league standards.” Who decides what that is? In 2018 the County hired a consultant who inspected Ed Smith stadium and the O’s Twin Lakes practice fields. According to the 2018 consultant assessment, $16.5 million are needed over the next 10 years for repairs and improvements. County officials say the County’s General Fund doesn’t have enough extra money to handle these expenses. The “major league standard” contract provision facilitates ongoing Orioles’ requests for more millions so they can keep up with the MLB “Jones.’

Last summer, the County Commission chose to fund these repairs by diverting dollars earmarked for tourism promotion. Local businesses were feeling the squeeze of plummeting visitor numbers due to red tide. This summer it’s flesh-eating bacteria. Nevertheless, the Sarasota County Commission diverted Tourist Development Tax dollars from promotion to stadium repairs, changing the percentage of the TDT dollars for the stadium from 16% to 21%; and reducing the promotional or advertising allocation from 30% to 25%.

Does spring training bring real economic impact? Economist Phil Porter conducted a study of Sarasota’s sales tax receipts when spring training was entirely cancelled due to the 1995 strike and partially cancelled due to the1990 lockout. If spring training were a big economic driver, Sarasota’s economy would suffer when spring training games were cancelled. Instead the opposite happened.

Porter found that during the lockout of 1990 taxable sales appeared to increase in Sarasota County by $993,785.29, and during the strike of 1995 taxable sales in Sarasota County appeared to increase by $3,316,110.79. Both of these increases were statistically insignificant; that is, these increases could have been due to chance. Porter concluded: “Cancelling spring training games appears to increase sales in Sarasota and the more games you cancel the greater the sales increase. However, because the coefficients are insignificant, the most we can say is that there is no evidence that hosting spring training games in any way contributes positively to sales of taxable items in Sarasota.”

Sarasota doesn’t need spring training to bring visitors here in March. But local businesses sure do need help when our waters are polluted with red tide or flesh eating bacteria.

Cathy Antunes is host of The Detail on WSLR.

Photo: Ed Smith Stadium

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