It appears the Chicago Cubs’ spring training facility will remain in Mesa. Team officials recently notified a group from Naples, Fla., attempting to lure the Cubs to the Grapefruit League that they plan to continue to negotiate exclusively with the city of Mesa. Mesa, meanwhile, reportedly is looking at four sites for the new facility: Recker Road and the Loop 202; the Riverview area; a downtown site; and near the Gaylord resort, planned for the GM Proving Grounds site. According to published reports, the Riverview area appears to be the leading contender for the facility.Spring training baseball in Arizona, a cash cow for Valley communities, is in need of another source of revenue to build new stadiums and refurbish existing facilities. The estimated 1.47 million fans who attended games played by the 15 teams that trained in Arizona this year contributed more than $300 million to the state’s economy, according to Cactus League Association estimates.
That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that owners of the Chicago Cubs, the biggest draw in the Cactus League, have threatened to move their spring home from Mesa to Naples, Fla., if they don’t get a new stadium and training facility.
Adding to the financial dilemma is that funding from the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, which among other things supports spring training baseball, has virtually dried up, due in some measure to the economic downturn. The agency receives most of its money from tourism-related taxes on hotels and car rentals.
A legislative proposal to add a surcharge to all Cactus League tickets to help pay for a new Cubs stadium was as welcome as a blazing fastball from Randy Johnson in his prime. Efforts to push House Bill 2736, sponsored by House Majority Leader John McComish, basically struck out.
“We need to find ways to not only keep the Cubs in Maricopa County, but use those creative funding mechanisms to preserve and expand other spring training facilities in the entire West Valley,” says Jack Lunsford, president and CEO of WESTMARC. “Keeping the Cubs is important, as well as making sure a funding mechanism for the Cubs can be applied, as necessary, in the West Valley.”
Stepping to the plate, Peoria officials proposed a possible solution — the creation of special bonding districts. John Schell, intergovernmental affairs director for Peoria, explains his city’s interest.
“Without much discussion with the other teams or other affected entities, they (key legislators) added a surcharge to tickets and rental cars,” he says. “The ticket surcharge got us more involved because of the adverse impact it would have to our revenue-sharing agreement with the two teams that train in Peoria, the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres. It was not feasible for us.”
The Peoria agreement, not unlike those of other Valley cities that host spring training teams, including Goodyear and Surprise, provides that if the state or some other entity puts a surcharge on tickets, Peoria would have to make up the difference.
“That would have cost us close to $300,000 a year to build a stadium in Mesa — with no ownership,” Schell says. “Imagine how the taxpayers in Peoria would have felt about that. So we were drawn into the discussion to try to identify some sort of funding solution.”
Schell notes correctly that the Arizona Legislature doesn’t have much of an appetite for new taxation, especially in the current economy. He and Peoria City Attorney Steve Kemp met with other host cities throughout the Valley and representatives of Major League Baseball to discuss options.
“It’s not a complete solution and it doesn’t involve any public funds,” Schell says. “We worked closely with the bond counsel for Major League Baseball and came up with a concept we called the revenue allocation authority.”
It was too late to be introduced at the Legislature this year, but Schell says there likely will be discussions on the topic even before lawmakers reconvene next January. It calls for the establishment of a district to issue bonds to pay for improvements or new construction of spring training facilities. Each district would have to be approved by voters living in the district and would not have taxing authority, Schell says.
“It’s a very strong tool,” Schell says. “It would use increment financing. It would capture the growth in the district. It would not become a general obligation of the city, and it won’t affect property taxes. People won’t feel the impact. It’s a unique way of financing.”
Schell says Major League Baseball, which helped prepare the proposal, is supportive.
Baseball insiders say they don’t think the Cubs will follow through with their threat and move to Florida. Although relocating to an Indian reservation, which is what the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies will do next spring, is an option, the Cubs have not expressed an outward interest in going that route. Others say if a deal with Mesa falls through, other Valley cities will make their pitch for the popular Chicago team.
Peoria Mayor Bob Barrett bluntly says the ticket surcharge proposal was a disaster and that he is adamantly opposed to such a scheme. On the possibility of the Cubs leaving Arizona, Barrett says he hopes they remain.
“They ought to talk to the tribes,” he says. “But, if they do leave, the world will continue to turn and the Cactus League will not disappear. The 14 other teams will survive.”