SARASOTA — The City and County of Sarasota should be putting the finishing touches on its first spring training with the Baltimore Orioles, but instead finds itself mired in a taxpayer revolt over the $31 million in funding for improvements to Ed Smith Stadium.The Orioles were once thought to be coming to Vero Beach, before bolting to Sarasota when the city and County offered up millions in improvements to aged Ed Smith Stadium.
The Sarasota Herald Tribune has reported that the Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government has already postponed the start of renovations to the Spring Training home of the Orioles and is asking now for a referendum to let voters decide if they want to fund refurbishing the stadium. Should the group be able to force the referendum, something observors say is not likely, they could void the contract and once again make the Orioles spring training free agents. Sarasota County Commissioners ruled out the request for a referendum on paying for the stadium upgrade, but did agree at a commission meeting to hold a public hearing on the matter on Feb. 19. Kevin Reichard, BallparkDigest.com publisher, says the group is grandstanding and has “zero” chance of success. Reichard is an expert in spring training and minor league stadiums and leases, was correctly predicting as far back as 2008 that Baltimore would end up in Sarasota.”They are challenging the original decision based on the Florida Open Meeting lawsuit,” Reichard said. “In the worst case scenario Sarasota does everything they want in an open meeting and get the same result.”However, as recent experience with the electric utility in Indian River County has shown, there is no telling what might happen when citizens begin questioning how decisions are reached regarding public funds.The Sarasota group filed its lawsuit in late December just as the County and City of Sarasota were about to issues bonds to pay for part of the $31 million in renovations it agreed to as part of the deal to land the Orioles. The lawsuit made it impossible to issue the bonds and also stopped the construction schedule that was in place to have the renovations completed by the start of the 2011 spring training season. Vice President of Minor League Baseball Craig Callan said his group made an overture to the Orioles five months ago about holding spring training at Dodgertown while work was being done on Ed Smith Stadium, but it was “politely declined.”Since then he has moved on bringing in high school and college tournaments to Dodgertown from February through April. While he presently is not seeking a dialogue with the Orioles, he said the team would be welcome to play at Holman Stadium if a deal could be struck.”They know we are available,” he said. “There is no reason to be banging on their door.”He is also aware of what might be if the Sarasota taxpayer group is successful in allowing voters to decide spending public money on a major league baseball team.”Referendums usually are not good for public funding,” he said.