CHICAGO _ It could come down to the difference between four and 25,000.
As the Chicago Cubs contemplate where to situate the future spring training and minor league operations, a prominent difference is emerging between the competing communities of Collier County and Mesa, Ariz.
Each community would have to amend its laws governing the use of tourist tax revenue to meet the demands of the club, which wants a 15,000-seat stadium and state-of-the-art practice and rehabilitation facilities surrounded by fan amenities like restaurants, bars and hotels.
In Collier County, the change would require the vote of four of five county commissioners. In Mesa, it would require a majority vote of city residents.
The difference isn’t lost on Robert Brinton, Mesa’s ambassador to the Cubs convention that wrapped up Sunday at the Hilton Chicago.
“It’s certainly not going to be just automatic,” Brinton said of the prospects of getting Mesa voters to approve money for the Cubs. “There will be plenty of people making arguments on both sides.
“The numbers we’re going to be looking at, it’s difficult for anyone to understand $100 million, $80 million, whatever it is. The timing is not good. It’s a tough time regardless of where you do this,” he said.
Brinton is the president of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau. He draws encouragement from a referendum a year ago in which 84 percent of voters approved $50 million in tourist tax help to bring a Gaylord Resorts project to the city.
Ryan Smith, son of Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, was in Chicago helping Brinton sell Cubs fans on the ideas of both visiting Mesa in the near term to see the Cubs and keeping the team there in the long term, beyond their possible departure in 2012.
“I think our chances of passing the vote are pretty good,” Smith said.
The Gaylord vote, which Smith worked on as campaign manager, entailed selling something new to voters. A Cubs vote, if it happens, would be to maintain something residents already embrace.
“The Cubs are a proven entity,” he said.
About 50,000 people voted on the question. Similar turnout would mean Smith, Brinton and other Cubs supporters would have to round up 25,000 votes to carry the day.
“It’s going to take tremendous effort,” Brinton said.
The mechanics aside, Brinton said he sees many similarities between Collier County and Mesa in their quest to get or keep the Cubs.
Both are offering similar packages of facilities and amenities and both face tight timelines, if chosen, to make enough progress in the 120-day window of exclusivity the winning city will be granted to convince the team the deal will in fact go through.
And both have to overcome people’s natural resistance to taxpayer support of private enterprise.
The landscape has changed since the Cubs first approached Mesa about spring training in 1952, said Brinton, who does double duty as president of the Arizona-based Cactus League. Then, a group of businessmen borrowed $3,000 to fix some bleachers at a city park to accommodate the team.
Now, teams’ demands outstrip the ability of local business and public financing is a necessary reality, he said.
When weighing such financing, people tend to overlook benefits to the community, such as the exposure spring training brings to destination cities in Florida and Arizona. Last year, Japanese TV carried some Cubs spring games.
“Nobody puts a value on games on TV. What did it mean to the state of Arizona to have four hours on TV in Japan?” he wondered.
Brinton claims no inside information on which way Cubs management might be leaning. If he had to guess?
“It’s the bottom of the seventh inning. Mesa’s probably up a run but I can’t tell you who our relief pitcher is. The game isn’t over,” he said.
In either case, Brinton is intent on remaining calm: “If I could predict, I’d be in Las Vegas. I don’t get too worried because I can’t control all the factors.”
Editor’s note: Click below to read Brent Batten’s other reports from the three-day Cubs Convention in Chicago.