It’s as if when they sold naming rights to South Florida’s sports stadiums, the winning bid went to “controversial.”
The mere whisper of the word “stadium” in a public gathering risks argument.
Mention taxpayer money or public financing in the same sentence with certain marine animals, the argument’s liable to escalate into a fist fight.
The Marlins stadium deal became so diseased in the public mind, seemingly infecting all talk of public funded sports palaces. So much so that the Dolphins ownership, with a renovation package not nearly so onerous, with a Super Bowl sweetener, has had trouble persuading state legislators that Miami-Dade voters should decide for themselves whether to jack up local hotel taxes and finance 49 percent of the football stadium’s improvements.
It’s raging, divisive stuff, this stadium debate. Which makes it seem as if another pro sports financing plan, this one underwriting spring training stadiums for major league baseball teams, was conceived in another universe.
With relatively little rancor, the Florida legislature last week worked out a very, very swell financing package for rich, pro baseball teams that prefer the public pick up the cost of their spring training complexes.
The state will spend $3.3 million a year to underwrite 37-year bonds to build or renovate baseball stadiums and training facilities. Under the plan, local governments would be required to match at least 50 percent of the projects’ costs. State contributions for each project would be capped at $20 million in incentives for a single stadium but $50 million for a facility that can host two teams.
The scale of these Grapefruit League rip-offs may be smaller than what the Marlins wangled out of the public or what the Dolphins want from taxpayers, but proportionately, the gougings are even more outrageous. Yet hardly a peep of protest has come out of Tallahassee.
And no thought of a veto. Back in February, Gov. Rick Scott, elected as a taxpayer watchdog, had suggested putting even more state money — $5 million a year — into the baseball park pool.
The money will finance a kind of intramural poaching, helping some Florida cities to build new parks designed to lure away teams from other Florida cities, no matter that some of the jilted towns have long histories and considerable investments in spring training operations.
Toronto Blue Jays have been spending March in Dunedin since 1977. The town of 35,000 north of Clearwater pays $300,000 a year in debt service for the cost of stadium renovations back in 2002, the last time the team threatened to abscond for fancier digs. But Palm Beach Gardens, with the state’s $50 million subsidy, intends to build a double park and steal the Jays and the Houston Astros from Kissimmee, where the Astros have been spending their springs since 1985.
Under this deal, taxpayers in Dunedin and Kissimmee, through their contributions to the state treasury, help underwrite their own betrayals.
Stadium leases for the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, the Washington Nationals in Melbourne and the Atlanta Braves in Orlando are running out over the next few years, promising more extortion plots. And major league baseball teams haven’t demonstrated the slightest hint of loyalty to spring training towns. After 32 years, the New York Yankees jilted Fort Lauderdale for Tampa in 1993, and the Los Angeles Dodgers abandoned their own “Dodgertown” and 60 years of history in Vero Beach to head for a lucrative deal in Arizona in 2008.