City leaders have unanimously approved spending $2.9 million to pay for improvements to the Philadelphia Phillies spring training facility.
The multimillion dollar improvements come in the midst of renegotiating employee pensions and on the heels of a belt-tightened budget, with plans for another next year.
The money comes from general reserves and pays for upgrades that include an expanded weight room and batting cages at the 45-year-old, four-field Carpenter Complex, which is next to .
“I have no second thoughts about the wisdom of this investment,” council member John Doran said. “I do think it’s a good investment for the city of Clearwater.”
Some of the money the city is doling out will be recouped. An agreement with the Phillies will pay the city 60 cents on each spring training ticket through the 2023 season. This could be as much as $77,792 a year based on past attendance numbers.
“They are a great partner; that’s why I’ve not had any reservations in spending this money," Mayor Frank Hibbard said of the Phillies organization. "And nobody wants to spend money right now, but this is something that I think we need to move forward with.”
The upgrades at the Carpenter Complex include a 20,710-square-foot building that includes six batting tunnels and a 4,831-square-foot weight room. The 3,420-square-foot north clubhouse will be renovated to include two indoor batting cages. A covered walkway will be built to connect the southeast side of the clubhouse to the new training building.
The plan will move fencing and sidewalks and replace open-air batting cages with landscaping.
The project also calls for adding two batting tunnels under Bright House Field and covered walkways above it. The project would start in May and be ready by spring training in 2013.
The city funded much of the $34 million Bright House Field, with state and other money from the Phillies. The city also spent about $3 million on other upgrades at the Carpenter Complex a few years ago.
Hibbard compared the upgrades to the spring training complex to what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did years ago in Tampa with their facilities in an attempt to lure better players. In this case, the Phillies have gotten better players, a move that attracts more fans, he said.
“Certainly the Phillies have spent a lot on their personnel, which has resulted in a lot more people coming down from the Deleware Valley-Philadelphia area, staying the entire spring training, frequenting our hotels and restaurants,” Hibbard said.
Council member Paul Gibson sees the expense as an investment in the city. Having the training and playing facility so close by is a selling point if the team decided to leave after its agreement with the city expires in 2023.
“Even though I don’t believe they’ll ever leave, I don’t believe we’ll ever give them a reason to,” Gibson said. “The fact that we are improving our own facility and bringing it up to Major League standards is an important point.”
The facility is used virtually year-round by the Phillies for spring training games and the Clearwater Threshers during the regular season. Clearwater High, St. Petersburg College and other groups also use the facility.
Clearwater resident Joe Paige called for leaders to give each taxpayer a check for $70 or $300 rather than pay for the upgrades.
“Yes, it is our facility, but we can’t use it. Only by special appointment with them can we use that facility,” Paige said. “It’s our facility, but no, we can’t use it; we are just paying for it.”