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Dodgers Leave Vero Beach Training Camp Today, Perhaps for Good

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Local officials here probably should have foreseen this, because forever shouldn’t be assumed in any relationship.

Perhaps something could have been done previously, saving everyone some grief. But no one thought the Dodgers would consider leaving their majestic spring training complex known as Dodgertown.

Until recently.

The Dodgers are being courted by the Yavapai tribe in Arizona, which has pledged to build a $50-million complex on the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation northeast of Phoenix. The proposed facility, which the Dodgers would lease from the tribe, is modeled after Dodgertown--only it could be better. It would include practice fields, a 12,500-seat stadium, a recreation and dining hall, a conference center and 140 bungalows.

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Dodger officials are intrigued by the proposal for many reasons, the economic and geographic benefits foremost among them. Vero Beach politicians and community leaders acknowledge that their city faces a formidable challenge to remain the spring home of the Dodgers, who have been here for 51 years.

The city, county and state have combined their efforts in an attempt to keep the Dodgers here. Officials are backing a proposal to buy the sprawling Dodgertown complex from the Fox Group (which purchased the franchise from the O’Malley family last March), make structural and aesthetic improvements, and lease Dodgertown back to the ballclub.

Questions remain about the government’s ability to raise the necessary funds, but Florida’s most powerful politicians are determined not to go down without a fight.

“This is a statewide issue and a statewide priority,” said Charles Sembler, the state legislature representative for Indian River County, which encompasses Vero Beach. “It’s important because of the history the Dodgers have in Vero Beach and Florida, and because the Dodgers have been an important member of the community.

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“People around here don’t take relationships like that lightly, and everyone understands what’s at stake. We are going to use a little more elbow grease, and burn the midnight oil to get this deal done.”

Neither deal is close to being completed.

Dodger officials said there are issues still to be resolved in the Fort McDowell proposal, among them the split of revenue generated and the maintenance cost of the complex, which would be operated by the tribe. The discussions between the Dodgers and Fort McDowell are providing time for Florida officials to make their best pitch.

Although other parties have approached the team about possible spring training deals, the Dodgers have agreed to consider only the proposals of Fort McDowell and Vero Beach, unless those discussions collapse.

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A committee appointed by team President Bob Graziano has met frequently with Vero Beach and Fort McDowell officials in the last few months. Negotiations will begin in earnest once spring training ends.

The Dodgers, and their Fox Group superiors, hope to have each group’s best offer on the table in time to reach a decision by the end of April.

“We’re just in good-faith discussions right now,” said Craig Callan, managing director of Dodgertown, and a member of the club’s spring training advisory committee. “I would say it if were a ballgame, we might be in the second inning.

“I can honestly say one is not ahead of the other. We are not anywhere near any stage to be saying we’re going to one place or another.”

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Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has endorsed the attempt to keep the Dodgers in Vero Beach, in large part because the team generates as much as $30 million annually for the local economy.

The Dodgers arrived at the former naval air base in 1948 and have conducted every spring training camp here since. They own 468 acres, on which they have built a complex considered the temple of spring training sites.

But the Dodgers are the only major league team that owns its spring training facility, and with ownership come property taxes and 250 additional staff salaries--433 during spring training. And the Dodgers are the only West Coast team that travels across the country for spring training.

Florida officials can’t address the Dodgers’ transportation costs, but they hope their efforts in other areas will diminish the importance of that issue.

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Bills that would provide $7.5 million in state funds to buy Dodgertown are moving through the state Senate. A bill sponsored by Sembler, which also is moving through the Senate, would help raise money by amending the use of a tourism development tax to pay for the acquisition of Dodgertown, providing almost another $230,000 annually, officials said.

County officials are assembling a $12-million package, pushing the total proposal to retain the Dodgers to almost $20 million. And Florida is probably going to need every penny to offer a viable option to Fort McDowell.

The city and county have appraised Dodgertown’s baseball facilities--including the 6,500-seat Holman Stadium, practice fields and batting cages--at $5.3 million, and the 88-room, on-site housing at $2.7 million.

Those figures do not include a nine-hole golf course, the Dodgertown Pines country club and 60 acres of citrus groves separated from the central baseball facilities. In addition, the Dodgers, who have not released their appraisal of the property, are expected to forward a list of minimum improvements necessary for them to consider staying here, even if government officials raise the money to buy the property.

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Renovations on the outdated stadium, expanded weight-training and clubhouse facilities, and other improvements are expected to be on the list. The state legislature is in session until the end of April, so it could be several weeks before Florida officials know how much money they have to work with.

“We’re exploring various concepts of acquisition and improvement, but in all of our proposals, this won’t work without state support,” said Jim Chandler, Indian River County administrator. “One of the things we’ve said, right from the inception of our discussions with the Dodgers, is that we’re a small community, and our resources are limited.

“We strongly want to try to retain the Dodgers, but by the same token, we have to do that in a fiscally responsible manner. They recognize our limitations on revenue, and they realize we’re not going to come in with a blank check.

“We’re not going to get into a bidding session with Fort McDowell or anyone else. [The Dodgers have] said they are going to look at the bottom line, and we’re doing the same, but also recognizing the [financial] impact the Dodgers have in the community.”

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Rex Taylor, Vero Beach city manager and point man in discussions with the Dodgers, remains optimistic but acknowledges the battle won’t be won easily.

“I’m always optimistic, but I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic about this,” Taylor said. “It’s going to be a few more weeks before the Dodgers are going to be able to put the figures together and make a decision, so I can’t really grade it as far as what the chances are.”

And if the O’Malley family still owned the club?

“Well, had the O’Malley family continued to own and operate the team, I don’t think they would have had any intention on moving from Vero Beach,” Taylor said. “They were as much a part of Vero Beach as the Dodgers; they looked at Vero Beach as a second home. But once the team was sold, those allegiances go away. We want to keep the Dodgers, and we’re going to look for the best arrangement possible, but it has to work for everybody.”

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Tony Donadio is chairman of “Keep the Dodgers,” a committee of concerned Vero Beach citizens that meets every other week to support government efforts to retain the team. Donadio hopes tradition and loyalty still mean something.

“They [the Fox Group] have shareholders they’re responsible to, and they have to look at the bottom line, but this community has been very loyal to the Dodgers,” Donadio said. “There are years of tradition here. After all the [recent] change in the organization, this is the only permanent thing they have left.”

In an interview with The Times in February, Peter Chernin, co-chief operating officer of Fox Group’s parent company, News Corp., said the company is sensitive to the bond between Vero Beach and the Dodgers. But there are other issues to consider, he added.

“We’re looking at which alternative we think is best for the team, and what we’re trying to do is balance some economic issues,” Chernin said. “We don’t have as strong an economic situation [during spring training] as some other clubs. . . .

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“On the other hand, the [Dodgertown] facility, the environment and the ties to the community--that means something to us. The city of Vero Beach has been offering a number of things that might help equalize the economics, and the people in Arizona are talking to us about some things. We’re just trying to gather all the facts to do what is best for the team.”

And once they have done all that, the Dodgers may head West again.

VERO BEACH

YEARS IN VERO: 51

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STADIUM CAPACITY: 6,500

COMPLEX SIZE: 468 acres

AMENITIES

Practice fields, batting cages, country club with 18-hole golf course, nine-hole golf course, swimming pool, tennis courts, 88-room housing, dining hall

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PROPOSALS TO KEEP TEAM: $20 million in state and county funds to buy and renovate Dodgertown and lease it to the team.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “There are years of tradition here. After all the [recent] change in the organization, this is the only permanent thing they have left.”

--TONY DONADIO, Vero Beach

Coverage

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* Blue Jays would be interested in sharing Arizona spring training site with Dodgers. Page 8

* Casino near Dodgers’ proposed Arizona spring training site should not be problem. Page 9

* Tourist tax kept Cactus League going when teams considered leaving for Florida. Page 9

* Cactus attendance up 42% since 1991, and should top million in ’99 for first time. Page 9

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