Sarasota approves transfer of stadium; Orioles closer to coming

07/22/09 Mitch E. Perry
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The $31 million dollar plan to make Sarasota the new spring training home for the Baltimore Orioles was barely approved today.

The City Commission of Sarasota agreed on a 3-2 vote to turn over Ed Smith Stadium to the County. But disagreement on adding an amendment to limit the City’s exposure to costs related to environmental impacts led two Commissioners to reject the proposal.

The issue of any remedial liability for the City surfaced on Monday, forcing the City Commissioners to delay a vote.

The plan is to have the Orioles play their spring training games in Sarasota at the current Ed Smith Stadium next year, and then begin construction of a bigger park after spring training ends. Those plans include expanding the seating from 7,500 seats to 9,000, as well as building a new party deck and clubhouse.

Spring training has become a political issue in Sarasota over the past few years. The former tenant, the Cincinnati Reds, worked with the City and County to try to get funding for a new stadium. But after a referendum shot down that proposal, negotiations to improve Ed Smith failed as well. The Reds then announced they were leaving after their lease ran out to move to Arizona.

Subsequent efforts to woo the Boston Red Sox from Lee County were fruitless, and today, several citizens weighed in that it was not worth it to spend the money to bring the Orioles to town.

Citizen Millie Small said the environmental issue was not a big deal. Elsie Souza led a local citizens group to try to bring the Boston Red Sox to Sarasota. She argued that it would be good business to bring the Orioles to town.

But there were several speakers who warned that it did not make good business sense to keep spring training in Sarasota. Phil Porter is the director of the Center for Economic Policy Research at USF. He has previously said that subsidizing spring training is a waste, and does not bring a return on its investment.

Jim Lample applauded Sarasota Mayor Dick Clapp, who questioned an economic study that supported spring training last year. He blasted that financial report as being of dubious integrity. Michael Barfield from the group Citizens for Sunshine called the environmental indemnification issue critical.

But as the City Commissioners prepared to make their vote, which would determine whether or not major league baseball would return back to Sarasota, Commissioners Kelly Kirshner and Terry Turner both said that the city was not getting a good deal by leaving open their liability on any environmental cleanups. That led Turner to propose this motion.

The City Commission then voted 3-2 to agree to offer the park to the County, with Commissioners Kirchner and Turner dissenting.

The issue was then scheduled to go back to the County Commission this afternoon.

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