As a resident of Lee County for 22 of the past 28 years and a resident of Vero Beach from February 2008 to April 2010, I feel compelled to weigh in on the articles printed this past week in a local Fort Myers newspaper regarding the impact that the Los Angeles Dodgers had on Vero Beach upon their departure.
These articles suggested that the void left by the Dodgers had been filled by amateur sports and that spring training did not substantially contribute to the success or suffering of that economy.
During the last season that the Dodgers played in Vero Beach, I was the manager of the Vero Beach Hotel and Spa. As I was relocating, the concern of the residents was tangible. Not only was the national economy unstable at that time, but the economic engine of spring training, which was as much a part of their identity as citrus, was leaving for a bigger and better facility.
Economically, Vero Beach would have suffered as we all did during the recession but the void of spring training baseball made it significantly more difficult. Small businesses around Dodgertown closed and left empty buildings and storefronts; the only mall in Vero Beach saw 35 percent of its occupants choose not to renew their leases; the surrounding neighborhoods saw their real-estate values nosedive; and some companies which were considering making Vero Beach their home reconsidered and pulled out, taking jobs and incremental tax revenues with them.
As a member of the Indian River Chamber of Commerce at the time, I can confirm that this was all attributed directly to the departure of spring training.
Socially, spring training gives a community a big league feel. To host a Major League Baseball team for spring training brings attention both nationally and internationally. The community rallies around the team that brings them repeat, long-term visitors who boost jobs, increase the tax base and in turn boost community morale.
Upon the departure of spring training, Vero Beach was left with beaches and citrus and essentially very little to differentiate it from any other small town on the Florida coast.
From a tourism perspective, Vero Beach is a small beachfront community without a commercial airport, concert or arts venue or major festivals. The community’s resorts dot the coastline, but without a major attraction they have struggled for an identity to compete with markets around them such as Melbourne and West Palm Beach. For years, spring training baseball evened the playing field.
In Lee County we have seen a tremendous number of room nights from amateur sports and having multiple complexes drives our ability to continue to attract these tournaments. However, amateur sports is only the icing on the multitiered cake that is spring training.