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Future of the Blue Jays in Dunedin up in the air | News

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Future of the Blue Jays in Dunedin up in the air
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Future of the Blue Jays in Dunedin up in the air

Dunedin, Florida (News-Press) -- Lee County will contact the Toronto Blue Jays about their 12-month search for a new spring training home with the goal of putting them in vacant City of Palms Park, said Lee County Commission Chairman Cecil Pendergrass.

The Blue Jays, according to The (Toronto)Globe and Mail newspaper, will spend the next year looking at contingency plans, as their lease in Dunedin expires in 2017.

"We've had no discussions with the Blue Jays, but since this news has emerged, we will reach out to them to have a discussion on any possibilities for City of Palms," interim Lee County Manager Doug Meurer said.

Blue Jays President Paul Beeston and other team officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Beeston told The Globe and Mail in a "perfect world," the team would remain in Dunedin, the Blue Jays' home since the team's first year, 1977.

"We've been in Dunedin from the beginning, and it hasn't impeded us from being successful," Beeston told the Toronto paper. The Blue Jays have trained on the same site longer than any other big-league team. "Having said that, it's not an ideal situation from the player-development perspective, with the separate complexes."

Having separate complexes would be what the Blue Jays would get were they to inherit the former spring training home of the Boston Red Sox.

Just as City of Palms Park sits 2.5 miles west of the minor league complex, both on Edison Avenue, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium sits 3.5 miles from the Blue Jays' minor league complex in Dunedin.

"I was discouraged to learn that where they are now, they have to drive between their major and minor league facilities, and they don't like doing that," Commissioner Frank Mann said of the 5,509-seat Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, the second-smallest spring training venue in the major leagues. "Here, we're stuck with the same issue. It's only a couple of miles, but it seems to be a problem. But we would love to talk to them. And our lines of communication are still open with the Nationals."

Lee, which has assumed control of City of Palms Park from Fort Myers, has been courting new tenants for the 8,000-seat stadium since agreeing to build the $80 million JetBlue Park in a 30-year lease agreement with the Red Sox that began last year.

The Washington Nationals and Lee have been negotiating, but the two sides have not spoken in recent weeks.

Pendergrass said he learned of the Toronto report Wednesday and within the hour had talked to Meurer, urging him to contact the Blue Jays.

"It's up to our staff to talk to them," Pendergrass said. "We have a facility already available and ready to go. We have a large fan base of Canadians who are already here."

Canadian dollars

Lee attracted 147,076 Canadians who stayed in hotels or other paid accommodations in 2011, an increase from 122,175 in 2010, according to information provided by the Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau. Two years ago, 34,331 Canadians paid for rooms in Lee in the spring.

From 2010 to 2011, Canada passed Germany as the largest supplier of foreign tourists to Lee County.

Pinellas County, where Dunedin (as well as St. Petersburg) is located, attracted about triple the annual number of Canadians when compared to Lee,
drawing 335,741 Canadians in 2012, including 117,694 in the spring training months of February and March.

The high number of Canadians did not translate to a boom at the Blue Jays box office. Toronto drew 77,108 fans last spring training. The Minnesota Twins drew 117,503 at 8,100-capacity Hammond Stadium, and the Red Sox drew 151,713 in the inaugural season at 9,900-capacity JetBlue Park.

"I hope they do come down," said Lee County Commissioner John Manning, who learned of the Toronto report from The News-Press. "I hope they don't ask an exorbitant price to do it. We'd love to get somebody in that park, I'll tell you that. We're all ears at this point."

Jeff Mielke, executive director of the Lee County Sports Authority, which is tasked with luring sports tourism dollars to the area, was in Tallahassee on Wednesday, in part to urge legislators to approve Gov. Rick Scott's bill to spend $5 million a year on spring training upgrades for teams threatening to leave Florida.

"I would be surprised if they looked at going anywhere else other than Dunedin because they have such a history there," Mielke said of the Blue Jays. "They have a great Canadian market."

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