Mesa waiting for Cubs to clarify needs - East Valley Tribune: News

Mesa waiting for Cubs to clarify needs

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Posted: Friday, April 17, 2009 5:54 pm | Updated: 2:08 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Cities maintaining sports facilities for professional teams are locked in something of an arms race - falling behind brings on the threat of a team leaving for better amenities, which means an accompanying loss of revenue and prestige.

Mesa mayor: Keeping Cubs may be difficult

Chicago Cubs threaten to leave Mesa

The Chicago Cubs, which have conducted spring training here since 1979, have let it be known Mesa is losing the race. If something isn't done, the team will consider moving, perhaps to Florida's Grapefruit League.

Now it is up to the city to keep the most popular draw in the Cactus League happy. Otherwise, watching the Cubs walk would deliver a devastating financial beanball.

"Even though Mesa has one team and one stadium, the Cubs are worth two teams," said Robert Brinton, president of both the Cactus League and the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

It's hard to overstate the economic impact of the Cubs to Mesa.

"We're talking 15-16 games and you're getting 10,000-13,000 attendees per game. I think that's significant," City Manager Chris Brady said.

Brinton said the Cubs last year generated about 96,000 hotel room nights, of which Mesa was able to capture 34,000.

With the Cubs responsible for that much money being spent in Mesa, city leaders are exploring all options for funding any necessary improvements.

But, improvements to what? And at what cost?

At the moment, those questions don't have answers. Complicating matters is the sale of the Cubs organization, which isn't expected to go through until this summer.

"No decisions can be made until the new ownership is in place," Mayor Scott Smith said.

The Cubs still haven't delivered a list of specific needs to the city, according to Mesa officials. Also, the Cubs did not return messages left by the Tribune seeking comment.

But Smith revealed the team said, during preliminary talks, it is content with Hohokam Stadium, where Cactus League games are played - it's the Fitch Park minor-league complex that was deemed inadequate.

Fitch is where young players train and play in the spring before embarking on their climb up the ladder toward Wrigley Field. During the summer, it's home to the Mesa Cubs, the organization's entrant into the rookie-level Arizona League. In addition, the Cubs brain trust gathers here for the annual draft, and injured players throughout the system come to Fitch for treatment.

But Fitch is aged and cramped. The trainer's room has only five tables for scores of players to have their ankles taped and arms rubbed down. Shaded workout areas, a necessity in Arizona for year-round activity, are nowhere to be found.

No kitchen to cook nutritious meals for growing men. No video room for hitters to study their swings. Players lift weights outside because the gym is too small.

In 1997, when Fitch reopened after a massive renovation, it was state of the art. Since then, new facilities have opened in Glendale, Goodyear and Surprise and complexes in Phoenix and Scottsdale have been upgraded.

"The bar keeps getting raised," said Dave Dunne, who runs Hohokam and Fitch for the city.

Without any specifics provided by the team, coming up with a potential price tag is difficult.

Dunne said Fitch's facilities were constructed in 1997 at a cost of more than $10 million in today's dollars. Two years ago, Scottsdale fixed up both its big-league stadium and Indian School Park minor-league complex for $25 million.

Mesa intergovernmental affairs director Scott Butler said there's little chance of using federal stimulus funding.

Butler said there was money in the stimulus program for parks and recreation facilities, but that it may have precluded things like stadiums to be recipients of those funds.

"So to my knowledge that's not an avenue anyone in the city has been exploring," Butler said.

The city may look to the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, a quasi-governmental agency responsible for funding improvements to Cactus League facilities through taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars.

Mesa is scheduled to receive $9 million from the tourism authority - but not until 2016.

Butler said Mesa could issue bonds against those revenues, knowing the bond money could be paid off once the money comes to the city.

It would be a start, yet more is needed.

"That AZSTA money set-aside could be a component," Butler said. "But there's that 'plus something' that will be needed - and that 'plus something' is up in the air."

Taxing economic development near the Cubs' facilities would be difficult, Brinton said, as all that's nearby are a canal bank, a cemetery and houses.

"You can't get the same kind of economic impact as compared to some newer facilities in Surprise, Peoria or Goodyear because those will have hotels and restaurants surrounding the area," Brinton said.

Mesa, like a manager looking to his bullpen for relief, may lean upon other cities in the Valley.

The Cubs are not just an asset to Mesa, Smith said, but also to the entire Cactus League. So, the city plans to meet with the league and the other Valley municipalities hosting teams in an effort to find funding.

Added Brinton: "You can't just say what is (the team) worth to Mesa, as much as it's a worth a whole lot to the Valley and to the state.

"There's no doubt that if you look at total Cactus League attendance and the games the Cubs play, they're far away the biggest draw, a keystone of the Cactus League."

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