Five years ago today Sarasota County executed an agreement with the Baltimore Orioles which fails to protect the public and deliver on hyped promises.
Little League access to fields. The Orioles make it clear to our little league coaches that they are in business to “make a profit”. The problem is they are profiting from restricting access to and charging taxpayers for the “community assets” we’ve already paid for – Ed Smith stadium and Twin Lakes fields. This past weekend the Orioles charged little league $1500 to use Ed Smith stadium for one day. Even at that steep price, there were problems with services provided, like the sound system and game scheduling . The price to use County fields controlled by the Orioles is a barrier for growing junior and senior leagues for 14-18 year olds. The Rays and Pirates sponsor local little league teams at Twin Lakes. The Orioles – who practice at Twin Lakes – don’t. The County failed to negotiate a deal that protects the interests of our young athletes. In numerous ways, the Orioles demonstrate bad faith toward youth sports in Sarasota County. As one little league coach puts it “since the Orioles took over everything has gotten more difficult “.
There is no Cal Ripken Youth Academy. Five years ago, the Orioles attorney stated under oath that their plan for the academy was a “solid commitment”, “not a fly-by-night offer”, and that fundraising for the youth academy (to raise 10 million dollars) would begin “immediately”. A press release issued by the Orioles and Ripken positioned the creation of the Cal Ripken Youth Academy in Sarasota as a sure thing. But Commissioners knew the agreement had no teeth, no way to require the youth academy be built. In response to criticism, one County Commissioner later claimed the attorney qualified his promise under oath, saying he could not commit Cal Ripken. Repeated review of public meeting yield zero evidence to support the Commissioner’s claim. The BCC and Orioles misled the public about the hyped Cal Ripken Youth Academy.
The County funded the Orioles project to the legal limit and gave everything away. Naming rights, concessions, parking revenues – go to the Orioles. Land parcels at Twin Lakes (for the fairy tale Cal Ripken Youth Academy) and across from Ed Smith Stadium (where Circus Sarasota performs) are tied up in the deal and on the Orioles asset sheet for the next 25 years. The County issued a bond to fund the project up to the legal limit permitted by the County Charter (about 20.7 million dollars). A state grant of 7.5 million and an additional 3 million in cash brought the total renovation budget to 31.2 million. The Orioles got use and control of Twin Lakes practice fields for free – were no longer required to pay $280,000 in rent for the facilities (these are among the fields our little leagues can hardly access now). The County waived all property taxes for the Orioles. The County obligated taxpayers to over $5.6 million dollars in additional Capital Repairs and Improvements to Ed Smith Stadium , and permitted the Orioles to place a surcharge on all Ed Smith event tickets to fund their contribution to Capital Repairs and Improvements. Bottom Line: The County “negotiation” was a colossal giveaway.
The County intended to violate the County Charter by using the City of Sarasota to issue a massive bond for them. The County Commission planned to issue a bond tens of millions of dollars higher than 20.7 million to fund spring training stadium renovations, but they knew such a bond required a County-wide referendum. The County Commission (through internal polling) knew the voters would not approve the massive bond. So they planned to have the City of Sarasota issue the bond (the City didn’t have a bonding limit) and said they would send the City the money to pay the bond for the next thirty years. Ultimately, City Commissioners refused to bond for the County when it became clear they would be sued by citizens and that they would be relying on every subsequent County Commission to fulfill the funding promise of the 2008/9 County Commission. The risky and possibly illegal bonding scheme was scuttled, but the posture of the County Commission toward the voters , the City and the County Charter was evident.
Stadium contracts were awarded through an improper procurement process. The procurement process awarding the owners representative contract triggered an internal audit by the Clerk of the Court. The Clerk’s audit failed to communicate clear violations: how the winning bidder provided the specs, and how County officials communicated with the favored vendor during the procurement process. The arrest of a County procurement officer in 2010 led to some procurement changes, the audit of stadium violations did not.
Our County Commission hopes we all forget how the interests of taxpayers and young athletes were sold out for worthless promises. Let’s disappoint them: Let’s all remember the hyped promises, and what was delivered. .
The gift for a five year anniversary is wood, but the Orioles have been giving Sarasota wooden nickels for five years now, thanks to the poor agreement signed by our County Commission.