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Cleared for Takeoff

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In fact, legislators are now reconsidering the whole idea of using taxpayer money for professional sports team facilities. So Fort Lauderdale appears to be asking for too much too late.

By today's standards Fort Lauderdale Stadium is completely unacceptable for major-league play. Sure, it has a diamond and bases and dugouts -- all the essential hardware needed for a game. But the wooden scoreboard, for example, allows very little space for advertising, and the team offices are still lined with wood paneling.

Renovations would cost between $17.9 million and $23 million, according to the economic-impact study conducted by Deloitte & Touche of New Jersey in 1996. Commissioned in part by the City of Fort Lauderdale, the study resulted in two bills -- one for each house of the Florida Legislature -- that basically requested the same thing: a change in the 1991 law allowing state sales-tax money to be spent on sports facilities to attract professional teams to Florida. The law does not allow for the money to be spent on fixing up old stadiums for spring training, which is exactly what Fort Lauderdale needs.

Based on discussions with Orioles management, the study suggests building eight skyboxes, more grandstand seats, bigger and better bathrooms and concessions, two new clubhouses (one for the home team, a smaller one for visitors), new administrative offices for the Orioles and the city (which manages the stadium), a souvenir shop, and improvements in ticketing, entrances, and ramps that will get fans in and out of the stadium more quickly.

Neither Horrow nor John Maroon, director of public relations for the Orioles, would verify that the items listed in the study would be enough to guarantee a fifteen-year contract between the team and Fort Lauderdale. But Maroon did admit that the Orioles want more revenue-generating amenities as well as nearby fields for its minor-leaguers. The best deal the city can offer is four fields in Pompano Beach, ten miles away. Maroon would only say that "in a perfect world, we would have them all in the same facility."

"We have to look at what's best for the organization," he added. "If it works out here, great. If it works out in another city in Florida, great."

Fort Lauderdale's stadium manager Vince Gizzi says the city has no intention of bulldozing the old stadium to build the Orioles something brand-new.

"Spring training is something special," he explains. "It's not like going to a Marlins game. You can get right up close to the players. You'll see them walking right by the fence there, signing autographs. We would like to keep this look, keep it intimate."

Gizzi chalks up the Orioles' evasive comments to strategy -- and a big head. "It's an ego thing," he says. "They want to see how much they can get out of these cities."

The economic-impact study alone cost $75,000. Suggested by City Manager George Hanbury and other Fort Lauderdale administrators, it was paid for by parties that have a vested interest in spring training: the Broward Economic Development Council, the Broward County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City of Pompano Beach, the City of Fort Lauderdale, and the Orioles themselves. Four of five Fort Lauderdale city commissioners voted in favor of the study in April 1996, and it was completed in December, a few months before the start of the 1997 state legislative session.

The study predicts enormous benefits for Broward County. But it also makes a few questionable assumptions. Not only would a renovated stadium be home to the Orioles for six weeks each spring; it would also house a minor-league team for six months after that and serve as a venue for moneymaking events such as car shows and musical concerts. The result: an annual economic windfall of $26 million, money that would be spent in the stadium and the surrounding community, in places like hotels and restaurants. The study also concluded that a renovated stadium would create a total of 448 full-time, permanent jobs in the county.

Those figures sound great to city officials like Fort Lauderdale's Vice Mayor Tim Smith, who sees a renovated stadium as a good investment. Mayor Naugle concurs, and Commissioner John Aurelius points out that spring training attracts loads of tourists.

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Lucy Chabot