SARASOTA, Fla. -- While Tampa Bay tries to sort out its stadium stalemate, critics of public subsidies in Sarasota are sending a warning to their friends to the north.
Three years after Sarasota landed Orioles spring training with a $31.2 million upgrades package, some of the promised benefits to the county still have yet to materialize. That includes a Cal Ripken Jr. Youth Baseball Academy, similar to two other year-round facilities in Aberdeen, Md., and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"The public was promised one thing and now the Orioles and Cal Ripken aren't coming through," said Cathy Antones, president of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government. "It seems that when you put the name Major League Baseball or someone like Cal Ripken or the Orioles on it, [county commissioners] lose their common sense."
Ripken is now in talks with neighboring Charlotte Co. to possibly build his youth academy in Port Charlotte. The Ripken Baseball Group claims economic impact from the facility could reach $40 million.
But the Orioles, who put out a press release in 2009 touting the Ripken academy, never wrote a guarantee into their contract with Sarasota County. They say nobody was misled and they still plan on developing a youth academy, even if Ripken builds his own just down the road.
"While not necessarily legally obligated, it remains our intention," said Orioles spokesperson Greg Bader. "There is enough demand, we feel, in the Central Florida area for two youth academies."
Bader said lawsuits from Antunes and Citizens for Responsible Government slowed the team's construction efforts over the past few years. But the critics eventually failed in court and now that the Orioles are wrapping up renovations of the stadium, their attention will shift to developing a youth academy at Twin Lakes Park.
Bader also added that Ripken's talks with Charlotte Co. appear to be very preliminary and the Orioles still hope to work with the baseball legend on a complex in Sarasota.
However, there is nothing requiring the Orioles to build a youth academy and Antunes says it shows how badly Sarasota was outmanuevered by the Major League team.
Sarasota Commissioner Joe Barbetta, who voted for the agreement in 2009, says Antunes has it wrong and the county actually got a great deal. The Orioles originally wanted $65 million, before settling for $31.2 million.
"For $31 million in tourist dollars and state grants, we ended up with a package that probably will be worth between $40 and $45 million," Barbetta said, adding that the county gave up the guarantee of a youth academy in the negotiations. "Never did I ever expect a Cal Ripken academy at that price."
However, it appears many residents of Sarasota were led to believe otherwise.
Both the Orioles and Charlotte Co. are trying to line up funding for a youth complex, and where Ripken ultimately ends up could depend on which group comes up with $8-$10 million first. The Hall of Fame shortstop was not available for comment this week; a company spokesman said he was busy traveling.
Antunes has spent the past three years criticizing the stadium deal, claiming the Orioles are trouncing the taxpayer in other ways too:
The county and team don't necessarily agree with Antunes, but she says it should serve as a warning for Tampa Bay leaders as they deal with the Rays' stadium search:
"Take a step back," Antunes urged, "and look at it not as a baseball team, but as any other business looking for a subsidy."
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