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Old Dodgertown turning into good news story

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of April 25, 2013)
Photo: Craig Callan: 'Future is very bright.'

After four years of struggle and controversy, Vero Beach Sports Village finally seems to be on a sound financial footing and attracting a growing number of out-of-state teams to Vero – and that’s good news for beachside hotels and businesses as well as those on the mainland closer to the old Dodgertown.

“We host a ton of baseball families who are in town for Sports Village events,” Ed Riley, general manager of the Costa d’Este Beach Resort, said last week. “While their sons are out playing baseball all day the parents are looking for things to do and we send them to the shops and boutiques and tourist attractions. Economically, it is a big win all the way around for Vero Beach.”

“We see many families who come for baseball spring training and lacrosse parents and teams that come down to play [at the former Dodgertown],” said Duncan Clements, general manager of the Vero Beach Hotel and Spa.  “They recommend our hotel as a place to stay and we highlight what is happening there so our guests can go out and see games.”

Sports Village Vice President Craig Callan said the business will turn a profit this year for the first time – even before new lease terms just approved by the county commission go into effect in May 2014.  The new five-year lease agreement will channel an extra $2 million to Verotown LLC, the ownership group headed up by Peter O’Malley that runs the facility.

The 26-acre county-owned campus at 26th Street and 43rd Avenue where the Los Angeles Dodgers held spring training for 60 years got key upgrades last year with construction of a four-field youth and girls softball complex and a professional quality multi-purpose field for soccer, football, lacrosse and rugby.

Those facilities are bringing in new revenue at the same time the Sports Village’s core baseball spring-training business continues to expand.

“We had 50 high school and college baseball teams at our first spring training in 2011, 105 last year and 155 this year,” said Callan. “This is a business that grows by word of mouth, one team talking to another, one coach saying to another, ‘You’ve got to be here,’ and it takes time to build that up. Once we get a team here, we do not have to worry about them coming back.”

Tony Cirelli, who coaches boys' varsity baseball at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vt., backs up Callan’s claim.

“This is baseball heaven,” Cirelli said last week as his 16-man squad was wrapping up a week at the Sports Village that included daily batting practice, field practice and games against other high-school teams, along with excursions to the beach and mall.

Cirelli praised the condition of the fields and training facilities, the efficiency of the staff, the food in the dining hall and the warm Vero Beach weather.

“It was sleeting and in the 30s when we left Vermont,” he said. “Here is it 80 degrees, perfect baseball weather.”

Cirelli said his players were thrilled to stay at the Sports Village’s 89-unit motel where Dodger greats like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale stayed, and play on fields where the big league team practiced.

“It has been a great experience for all of us to be here at a facility with such a great tradition. Sunday night we went to see ‘42’, which added to our appreciation of the history of baseball and this place, both of which relate directly to the history of America,” Cirelli said.

“42” is the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball, who started his career at the Vero training facility.

Callan said teams pay $495 per person for a typical 5-night, 6-day stay at the Sports Village, including three meals a day.

That means Burr and Burton’s 16 players and two coaches, who stayed six nights instead of five, had to come up with approximately $10,000 plus travel expenses to pay for a week of baseball at the former Dodgertown.

Cirelli said it was worth every penny. “We had a bunch of fundraisers to get the money and if we can raise it again next year, we will absolutely be back.”

The Sports Village’s spring training season runs from February through mid-April, coinciding with spring breaks at colleges and high schools around the country.

Director of Athletics and Marketing Jeff Biddle said there were five weeks this spring when the facility was fully booked with 24 teams and a total of 300 players sleeping, eating, practicing and competing on the well-maintained campus.

Based on figures provided by Callan and Biddle, the Sports Village takes in somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000 during a capacity week, making the spring training season a cash cow for Verotown LLC, which has a $4-million annual operating budget.

“It is the busiest and most profitable period of the year for us, by far,” Callan said. “But it doesn’t just benefit us. The economic impact spills over and benefits hotels, restaurants and other businesses around the county.”

In total, events at Sports Village brought more than 24,000 players and spectators to the county in 2012, many of whom came for multi-night stays.

“It isn’t uncommon for us to have eight or 10 families here in a single week,” said the Costa d’Este’s Riley.  “There have been days when I have been out on the pool deck greeting guests and 50 or 60 percent of the deck has been occupied with these wonderful families.  If they are staying for four or five days, they don’t want to eat all of their meals here so we send them to other eateries that also benefit.”

“The Sports Village has tremendous impact, not only during spring training, but year round now,” said Keith Kite, a member of the Sports Commission and the owner of Springhill Suites. “Last summer, when USF held football training camp here, parents and press filled at least 30 percent of our hotel. And that was during August which is usually our slow time, so it really helped.”

Biddle said the complex is building up a steady, year-round slate of business. “May is girls softball and Little League tournaments, June through August is tournaments and camps for baseball, football and other sports, all ages.

“September and October are international baseball with professional teams coming in from other countries. There are more tournaments and camps in November and December, and in January we are heading back into our busy spring training season.”

Minor League Baseball opened the Sports Village as a tournament and training facility after the Dodgers moved their spring camp to Arizona in 2008. It was a tough time to launch a new business, according to Callan

“We lost a million dollars the first year, $500,000 the second, $250,000 the year after that,” he said. “Like any start-up we were pouring money into the business and not getting much out and we were in the middle of a recession.”

More problems cropped up in 2011, when the company got caught in the middle of city/county land swap dispute that threatened to scuttle the new youth fields. Additional disputes between the county and Minor League Baseball over who would pay for new signs and field lighting also occurred.

Things began to turn around last year when former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, his sister Terry Seidler and former Dodgers pitchers Chan Ho Park and Hideo Nomo joined Minor League Baseball in an equal five-way partnership to own and run the facility.

O’Malley, who took on the role of CEO, brought exceptional credentials to the operation, along with a strong emotional connection to the former Dodgertown.  His presence in the partnership and his commitment to the training facility was cited by several commissioners as a key reason for approving the new more favorable lease agreement, which begins in May 2014 when the current five-year lease ends.

“Mr. O'Malley has the contacts and resources and interest, and brings something no one else could bring,” said Commission Chairman Joe Flescher.

Commissioners were also swayed by the Sports Village’s steadily improving business and strong economic impact.

Callan plans to renovate the facility’s aging motel rooms and hire a national marketing person when the new lease is signed. Meantime, O’Malley is negotiating to regain use of the historic Dodgertown name.