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bobliocatt

Winter Haven wants Cleveland Indians to leave

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Winter Haven Says Subsidies For Team Are Unaffordable

By RANDY DIAMOND

[email protected]

WINTER HAVEN - The banners leading up to the ballpark proclaim ``Winter Haven Welcomes Our Cleveland Indians.''

But the question is, for how long? A divorce is in the offering, and the only unsettled question appears to be the date.

The business of professional baseball has been played in this small city of 27,000 for nearly four decades, a tradition that had led to a sense of pride as well as an enrichment of some local businesses.

Nonetheless, today's final Indians home game of the year against the Detroit Tigers could be the last at the aging Chain of Lakes Park, whose charm is its simplicity. But the love of the fans, many who come from Ohio, won't make a difference in whether baseball continues in this city.

It might not be this year, but the Indians and Winter Haven city officials seem determined to end their relationship.

The city is going against the grain of many Florida towns eager to lure major league teams to their city. Turns out they think they know of a better place to put their money: boutique shops and condominiums.

The dispute between the team and the city centers on who should pay for the cost of maintaining the stadium complex. Right now, it's the city. They get a cut of the Indians' ticket revenue, but Winter Haven loses nearly $1 million a year. The Indians say they have increased their contribution, but ultimately say Winter Haven officials must accept the loss as part of a trade-off that brings a major league baseball team to town and increases tourism.

Most Florida communities welcome baseball with open arms, saying the tourism business makes any subsidy worthwhile. In Winter Haven, however, it's one business against another: the officials who run Winter Haven against the businessmen who run the Cleveland Indians.

Caught in the middle are other businesses, such as restaurants and hotels, that get a bump in revenue during spring training.

A Beef O'Brady's Family Sports Pub near the stadium was packed after a recent game. Owner Lou DeLeo says he adds eight to 10 servers during the six weeks of spring training because business increases by 30 percent to 40 percent.

``It definitely helps us a lot,'' DeLeo says of the Indians coming to town.

Just down the street is the Holiday Inn, the Indians' official headquarters. The team rents more than half its 227 rooms, and the rest are booked by their fans. ``This business is not replaceable,'' says Desiree Arscott, the hotel's director of sales.

But Winter Haven is a business, too, Mayor Mike Easterling says.

``We've been very fortunate to be one of the smaller communities to have major league baseball,'' Easterling says, ``but it costs us a lot of money.''

Easterling says bigger communities such as Tampa may be able to subsidize teams such as the Yankees, but in Winter Haven, where the city's relatively modest annual budget is about $65 million, there is no such option. He says he has to explain to taxpayers why the city covers the Indians' costs but skips paying for playground equipment for Winter Haven parks.

If the Indians were good citizens, they would offer to help out, he says.

Bob DiBiasio, the vice president of public relations for the Indians, says the team has increased Winter Haven's share of ticket revenue from 12 percent to 30 percent, giving the community an additional $140,000. Any more money is out of the question, DiBiasio says, because the Indians have been running in the red the past several years. The city should instead look at the overall economic benefit on local businesses from the Indians' presence, he says.

The tourist bump comes during the height of the tourist season, when the community is already doing well with seasonal residents who come to see the newly reopened Cypress Gardens or to spend time on one of the community's lakes, Easterling says.

The economic bump also doesn't extend to Winter Haven's downtown, about a mile from the stadium.

Dave Tuttle, who runs a downtown coffee shop, says he sees plenty of seasonal residents, but very few baseball fans. ``There's just a lot more taxpayers out there than simply those few businesses that benefit from baseball,'' he says.

The ballpark is now surrounded by a sea of strip shopping centers. Easterling, however, has another vision. He says he wants to tear down the ballpark, a spring training site since 1966, and in its place build an upscale shopping complex to grace adjacent Lake Lulu. Perhaps condominiums could go there, he says, and with them will come profit from the sale of the land, assessed at $12 million, and new tax revenue for the city.

A new ballpark could be built in another part of town, on less valuable land, with or without the Indians, he says.

Right now, it looks like without. The mayor doesn't talk to the Indians, nor do the Indians talk to him.

``It's a foregone conclusion that the city wants us to leave,'' DiBiasio says. Where they will go is unclear. Arizona officials, where the Indians formerly played, are trying to recruit three teams from the 18 that make up the Grapefruit League in Florida. The Indians, however, aren't in a hurry. They hold the cards when it comes to leaving Winter Haven.

When the Red Sox departed after 35 years in Winter Haven, the city, desperate for a new team, signed the Indians in 1993 to a long-term lease with several renewal options.

Under its contract with the city, the Indians can leave before the start of the season simply by notifying Winter Haven. The team also has the right for automatic lease renewals for the next two decades.

Twelve years ago, the team and Cypress Gardens were Winter Haven's main economic generators. Now, with 5,000 new homes slated for construction, the city sees itself in a broader light, with upscale stores drawing tourists instead of baseball.

The Indians don't want to stay where they are not wanted, DiBiasio says, it's just a question of finding the right city with the right terms.

The hostility between the Indians and Winter Haven dates to 2000 when Florida's Legislature offered up to $15 million to communities that renovated or built new ballparks for spring training. The catch: The major league team had to agree to sign a 15-year lease.

In Lakeland, the state money was used to renovate Joker Marchant Stadium, the Detroit Tigers' spring training home. In Clearwater, a new $28 million-plus baseball stadium was built for the Philadelphia Phillies. In Winter Haven, nothing happened. The team told the city it couldn't commit because it was keeping its options open about moving to another city.

What hurt even more was that the Indians were considering moving to Fort Myers, to the stadium the Red Sox abandoned Winter Haven for in 1993. The Indians would have shared the stadium with the Red Sox.

DiBiasio said it was nothing personal. The team was eyeing southwestern Florida because it was full of vacationers from northeast Ohio, he said, but negotiations fell apart.

Although Winter Haven may be happy to see the Indians leave, other communities are still smarting from the loss of spring training.

Plant City built a new multimillion stadium for the Cincinnati Reds in the late 1980s, but when the lease was up 10 years later, the team left for Sarasota. Plant City couldn't attract a new team and was forced to renovate the stadium for a new tenant, the International Softball Federation.

Now the Reds want Sarasota County to pay for stadium renovation, a move some county officials are resisting. In the background, Arizona, spring home to 12 Cactus League teams, is lurking.

DiBiasio says the team actually likes playing in Winter Haven. The team would support building a training complex in Winter Haven and a new stadium, as well as contributing some money to it, if the city came up with a plan that turned out to be ``a good business decision for us.''

That doesn't seem likely. Michael Stavres, the city director in charge of maintaining Chain of Lakes Park, said communities can't afford to play by the team's rules anymore. It's hard to justify subsidies to a business that gives its main employees multimillion-dollar salaries, he said.

He can understand the concern of local businesses that serve tourists, Stavres says.

His father, Andrew, ran a restaurant by the ballpark that depended on Red Sox fans, so much so, that it helped get the eatery through more marginal times the rest of the year, he says. When a baseball strike prevented the Red Sox from playing their final season in Winter Haven in 1992, Stavres says the business folded.

Researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Reporter Randy Diamond can be reached at (813) 259-8144.

This story can be found at: http://www.tampatrib.com/MGBUO24EY6E.html

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Bravo, to my home town. Spring Training baseball isn't all its cracked up to be and a definate drain on the city. Plus the large stadium site sits on some of the most valuable waterfront land in the city. Tell the Indians to pay their fair share and build a new stadium closer to downtown or tell them to take a hike.

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Interesting.

According to this article, a tax break for Winter Haven has been added to the Marlins stadium proposal in the Florida House.

http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/11262571.htm

The measure cleared its first House committee, but not before lawmakers loaded the bill with tax subsidies for spring training ballparks in Fort Lauderdale, Winter Haven and Sarasota -- cities that host baseball teams that the state of Arizona is said to be courting.

Tourism committee chairwoman Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican who added the spring training provision to the Marlins bill, said she wants to help the three facilities fend off Arizona's entreaties.

''I think the Marlins are better off with something that benefits people from all around the state,'' Detert said. ``I don't think it's a deal breaker for the Marlins.''

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Interesting. I know most residents in Winter Haven could care less about Spring Training. It should be interesting to see what happens.

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