FORT MYERS, Fla. - The Red Sox are engaged in negotiations with local authorities about the relocation of their spring training site. They’ve got the number of potential sites whittled from 15 to nine.
The problem: This is a want, not a need.
Their desire to “upgrade” is the wrong quest at the wrong time.
Who doesn’t know these are the most perilous economic times since the Great Depression? And anyone who’s paying attention understands that few areas are having more difficult economic times than southwest Florida.
John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino aren’t stupid. They should get it. Any action that asks either Fort Myers or Lee County to spend a dime on their behalf is shameless.
There is no good reason for the Red Sox to be seeking a new venue. City of Palms Park was built for them in 1992, amid great controversy. It was plopped into the middle of a residential neighborhood, and it could not have been built without forcible evictions. Think West End.
Meanwhile, there is nothing wrong with it. Oh, sure, it needs annual upkeep. Who doesn’t? But the fact is this is a perfectly adequate facility, with great seating and sight lines, a very impressive locker room, a proper weight facility, an adequate supply of batting cages, etc. No one can say this isn’t a decent facility.
So what’s the problem? As far as I can tell, the Red Sox would be happier if their minor league fields, their auxiliary fields, which are about 2 1/2 miles up the street, were attached to the main ballpark, the way they are for the Twins and the Rays, among others. Boo-hoo.
It’s a nonissue. The Red Sox are operating from their minor league facility right now. There are enough fields for everyone to get their work in. The major league club will relocate to City of Palms Park when games begin. From that point on, a Red Sox official will have to make that arduous trek 2 1/2 miles up the street if he needs to go to the minor league facility.
Things are bad in southwest Florida. According to the New Yorker, “The highest [foreclosure] rate in the country could be found in Fort Myers and Cape Coral, where 12 percent of the area’s residences were in foreclosure.” A drive down US 41 from Fort Myers to Naples is a shocking and sobering experience. You cannot imagine how many abandoned and shuttered shopping malls there are, and not just along US 41. And that’s just the beginning of the shocking story.
So how can the Red Sox even think about hitting up the local taxpayers for a facility estimated to cost between $50 million and $75 million, especially when, no matter what they say, they simply do not need it? They simply want what others have.
Not everyone here is pleased. On Monday, The News-Press of Fort Myers, a very good paper, devoted its entire letters to the editors section to people who needed to vent about the proposed deal.
For me, the most eloquent person was Albert Sengeto of Fort Myers. A sample of his presentation:
“The state and county are both suffering a budget shortfall. They want our underpaid teachers to take a salary cut or face layoffs. We are highlighted in the national news as an example of the recession with 10 percent unemployment ... Newly built strip malls sit empty ... home foreclosures are overwhelming the county. All branches of county employees face layoffs. Businesses are closing everywhere. With all this going on, the biggest problem for our elected officials appears to be where to build a ballpark for the Red Sox.”
The Red Sox are relying on the old argument that their presence is a boon to the local economy, and that’s true. Now they can say a new stadium will provide construction jobs, and that’s true. But once the construction is done, the only jobs left are one-month jobs.
As a blogger named Kato Man observed, “Maybe all the teachers that will be out of work from lack of funding can get jobs at the new stadium, selling hot dogs.”
Or, as letter writer Jill S. Pett pointed out, “After construction of the Red Sox stadium is completed, the jobs that remain will be largely part-time peanut vendors - nice for some extra cash, but hardly family supporting employment.”
The Red Sox will argue that the Lee County authorities have made them a priority, and they’re simply going along. The Red Sox did spurn the strong goo-goo eyes focused on them by the city of Sarasota, the reason being the apparent desperation of Lee County to keep them anchored here. It’s not just money. Lee County very much likes basking in the reflective glory of the two-time world champion Red Sox.
But the Red Sox should restrain themselves. Staying here is enough of a commitment to Fort Myers. They don’t have to stick their hand out for $50 million or $75 million at a time when the area is under economic siege.
How bad are things here? The local Little Leagues are reporting a severe drop in enrollment because so many families cannot afford the registration fees. So instead of allowing the Lee County authorities to prostrate themselves at their feet, the Red Sox, who have benefited so greatly over the past 16 years from the generosity of the Fort Myers community, should step up and subsidize those registration fees for the families having such a hard time.
The Red Sox will continue to be a boon to the local economy, playing out of City of Palms Park. And they don’t need a handout from anyone, let alone the besieged people of Lee County.