As Lee County celebrates the new JetBlue Park, it is important to reflect on how close we were to losing the Boston Red Sox and on the importance of baseball to our local economy. Since 2000, five Major League baseball teams have relocated their spring training from the Florida Grapefruit League to the Cactus League in Arizona.
In the summer of 2008, the Boston Red Sox indicated a strong desire to leave the City of Palms Park and pursue various options for a new spring training site. The Lee County Board of County Commissioners acted decisively to ensure that the Red Sox remained in Lee County by entering into a 30-year contract with the team.
Unlike the previous contract, the new contract expressly prohibits an opt-out clause, broadens the use of the new facility for non-baseball events year-round, increases the annual lease from $300,000 to $500,000, and requires the Red Sox to increase their proportional share of the stadium refurbishment fund from $20,000 annually to an average of $100,000 per year. Furthermore, the stadium naming rights given to JetBlue Airlines provide $1.2 million to Lee County over eight years.
The extraordinary story is all about the financing of the new stadium during one of the worst economic recessions in recorded history. As with the Minnesota Twins Spring Training complex, Lee County pledged tourist tax funds, not property tax, to fund construction of JetBlue Park. We are extremely fortunate to host the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox, and they have enhanced our area as the destination of choice for our wonderful visitors from the Midwest and Northeast. Indeed, with two-thirds of the fans coming from outside Lee County, spring training baseball provides positive revenue flow to our local economy and supports thousands of jobs in our hotels, motels, restaurants, retail stores and attractions.
The actual construction of JetBlue Park provided more than 500 jobs critical to our local work force. Fort Myers-based Seminole Gulf Railway transported the steel for structural support of the stadium; local trucking companies hauled fill dirt for the site; and a great many subcontractors including surveyors, pipe fitters, plumbers, electricians and painters remained gainfully employed at a time of high unemployment.
Baseball is a huge economic engine in Lee County, as evidenced by a 2000 Florida Sports Foundation study that indicated each Major League baseball team generates $25 million annually to the local economy. An independent study by Sarasota County in 2008 - when they were attempting to lure the Red Sox from Lee County - revealed that the Boston Red Sox and the "Red Sox Nation" fan base would provide a $45 million impact.
Our baseball-friendly environment has attracted the interest and attention of amateur baseball organizations such as Roy Hobbs, Gene Cusic Classic, the Perfect Game, and men's and women's collegiate baseball and softball tournaments. Collectively, the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and amateur baseball place a lot of heads in beds while pumping in excess of $75 million annually into our local economy. JetBlue Airlines' recent announcement of a new direct flight between LaGuardia Airport and Southwest International will facilitate ease of travel and translate into increased tourist dollars, gas tax and sales tax dollars into our local economy.
The presence of Major League Baseball offers a multiplier effect further benefitting Lee County. Both the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins contribute substantially and participate in local fundraising events and community programs and activities. Both teams have raised millions of dollars through charity golf tournaments and fundraising auctions to provide resources for the Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida, Boys and Girls Club, and Little League Baseball in addition to numerous other community service organizations.
JetBlue Park will be the catalyst for increased real estate value and explosive business growth along Daniels Parkway. The old Yankee Stadium may have been the house that Babe Ruth built, but JetBlue Park is the house that our valued tourists built. And it will be a gift that keeps on giving.
Ray Judah is a member of the Lee County Commission.