Pima County youth sports might end up benefitting most from the drive to save spring training baseball in Tucson.
"I'm not sure which is most important to the Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority," says authority chairman Tom Tracy about spring training and youth sports.
Gov. Jan Brewer recently signed House Bill 2572 into law. It will allow voters to decide—sometime between 2010 and 2014—on a measure which would raise approximately $15 million a year in additional tax revenue to fund a new baseball stadium for spring training in Pima County.
But the legislation includes another provision: The authority must spend "at least 10 percent of its general revenues for the purpose of promoting youth sports and recreation."
After six years, if two Major League teams haven't agreed to use a new stadium, the tax levy would be cut in half.
"Youth sports could attract tremendous amounts of business into Southern Arizona," Tracy predicts. "The tournament-quality facilities would also be fabulous assets for residents."
Most of the authority's previous focus has been on saving the 60-plus year tradition of spring training in town.
Both the Arizona Diamondbacks, who train at the southside Tucson Electric Park (TEP), and the Colorado Rockies, who play at historic Hi Corbett Field in midtown, have said they'll be leaving Tucson after 2010. However, Tracy indicates the authority has both short-term and long-term goals for retaining spring training.
This push was initiated after the Chicago White Sox broke their spring training lease at TEP last year. They worked out a financial settlement with Pima County; $300,000 of that money went to fund the Board of Supervisors-appointed sports authority. The Tohono O'odham Nation also donated $50,000 to the cause.
As of the end of May, the authority had spent about $45,000, with much of that money going to consultants, including those working to bring Asian baseball clubs to train in Tucson.
The authority has also made a proposal to the Baltimore Orioles to move to TEP from their present spring site in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The team's training situation isn't good there, and efforts to improve it have been hampered by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Jeff Modarelli, a spokesman for the Florida city, says the community hopes to retain the Orioles. He expects a decision around October.
If the Orioles do decide to relocate, there are other places in Florida—Sarasota and Fort Myers among them—that would welcome the team. But the Orioles did train in Arizona for several years during the 1950s, so a move west isn't out of the question.
Tracy is philosophical about Tucson's prospects to land the Orioles. "If they get a reasonable deal in Florida," he admits, "that's probably their first choice."
Tracy is more upbeat about the chances of attracting one or two Japanese teams to train in town.
"We could install an international training center at TEP," he says, "which would provide a myriad of opportunities with the Japanese. TEP lends itself to youth and international training, but it's an inconvenient location for Major League Baseball."
However, the Legislature's goal was to address that shortcoming. If approved by voters, the ballot measure will raise taxes on car rentals, dining, overnight accommodations and amusement events, possibly to build a third professional baseball stadium in metropolitan Tucson.
While attention has been centered on a proposed facility in Marana, Tracy says that's not a given. He also insists the project won't run into financial shortfalls like the 12-year old TEP has; taxpayers have needed to bail out the stadium.
"We'll have reserves to ensure that won't happen," he promises. "We specifically don't want to put the taxpayers at any future risk."
Tracy optimistically envisions spring training games being played at all three Tucson baseball parks. Several teams would be involved, he says.
Tracy outlines how three Major League clubs, perhaps including the Orioles, could train at the new facility and play a total of 30 games there, with another 15 games played at Hi Corbett. The Japanese teams would use TEP and play up to 30 games against Major League opponents.
Accomplishing this dream will take several steps. Of course, voters first have to approve the 30-year tax increases. Tracy is unsure when the issue should go on the ballot.
"I have mixed emotions," he says. "There's a lot of excitement now, but the economy (may make a November 2010 date) foolish. The authority will sit down this summer and decide whether to run it (next) year or not. If we could keep the Rockies and Diamondbacks (by doing so), we'd run it. ... Without them, it's not a big timing issue."
If voters approve the tax increases, the authority would then have six years to get two Major League clubs to commit to spring training at a new stadium.
Meanwhile, the tax money would be flowing into the authority's coffers—and if the new stadium idea strikes out, the money could all be directed to youth sports.
As a result, in the long run, Tucson might get facilities for Little Leaguers, not big-league teams.