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County accepts $5M for Sox departure; D-backs could be next to leave

White Sox player Jim Thome signs autographs for fans before the final game of spring training in March. It may have been the Sox final game in Tucson.

White Sox player Jim Thome signs autographs for fans before the final game of spring training in March. It may have been the Sox final game in Tucson.

It didn’t take long for another cleat to drop regarding the future of spring training in Tucson.

Hours after the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to accept a $5 million buyout to let the Chicago White Sox out of the team’s lease at Tucson Electric Park, officials of the Arizona Diamondbacks confirmed the team is entertaining offers to move its spring training operations out of Tucson Electric Park and closer to Phoenix, as well.

“We would rather just stay there,” Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall said Tuesday. “But there has to be more than two teams. That’s our issue.”

The Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, who train at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, both have stipulations in their contracts with the county and city that there be at least three teams in the area for spring training.

Both teams can use the departure of the White Sox, and any future failure to draw a third Major League Baseball team to replace the White Sox, as breaches of their contracts binding them to remain here for spring training through 2012 and 2011, respectively.

Hall said the Diamondbacks will conduct spring training in Tucson this coming Cactus League season, and likely at least until the team’s contract with the county to use TEP at least through 2012.

“You would comfortably need at least two to three years to build a stadium and facilities,” Hall said.

Hall added a replacement team might not be enough ultimately keep the Diamondbacks at TEP.

“We need four teams,” Hall said

County officials Tuesday accepted the White Sox buyout offer to leave TEP before the team’s lease expires in 2012 to play at a new facility in Glendale, with a combination of anger and resignation.

“It’s a really sad day for baseball here in Tucson,” Board Chairman Richard Elías said before the supervisors’ 5-0 vote to accept the White Sox’s offer.

Though the deal negates the contract bonding it here through 2012, the Sox still will be required to search for a replacement MLB spring training team for Tucson Electric Park through 2026.

An alternative proposal rejected by the supervisors would have had the White Sox help establish and fund a youth and amateur sports tournament facility at TEP, including a MLB-affiliated Baseball Academy focusing on programs for at-risk kids in the community.

Supervisors reserved irate comments not so much for the White Sox but for communities up north, which used revenues generated by the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority to build new lavish facilities to lure MLB teams not only from Tucson but Florida as well.

The Phoenix-area sports authority was created by the Legislature in 2000 as a financing mechanism to build the National Football League Arizona Cardinals’ stadium that opened this year in Glendale.

“It was never the intent of the Legislature for the sports authority to be abused the way Phoenix and Glendale abused it,” said Supervisor Ramón Valadez, whose district contains TEP.

After the Cardinals’ stadium was completed, the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority continued to raise and use tax revenues to build new spring training facilities in such communities as Glendale and Goodyear.

Elías termed the actions of the Maricopa County communities to take spring training teams from other cities in the state – namely Tucson – as “cannibalism.”

The Rockies already are exploring a move out of Hi Corbett Field. Team officials want the city to spend at least $10 million to upgrade the facility, located in Reid Park. City officials, in the middle of a budget crisis that has included hiring and salary freezes, say they don’t have the money.

Rockies officials have spoken with officials of the town of Marana about occupying a possible new spring training and sports complex there. But plans for such a facility have not been drawn and a funding source source has not been identified.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said Tuesday afternoon that county officials and members of the Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority have heard rumblings that the Diamondbacks could look elsewhere if the White Sox were to pack up.

‘It’s no surprise,” Huckelberry said.

“Chandler – that’s where we’ve heard,” Huckelberry said.

The Diamondbacks’ Hall said one possibility could have the team partner with the Rockies at a new spring training complex closer to Phoenix.

But Hall also said that talks also are ongoing with a private developer to build a new facility in or near Tucson for the Diamondbacks.

At Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, supervisors were told that local private businesses and amateur athletic agencies could help develop and operate youth facilities that could develop into a major tournament destination site on a regional or national level.

“Whatever the price of buying out the contract, the money should be used for youth sports,” Jim Tiggas, who represents the Amateur Athletics Union, the oldest amateur youth sports advocacy organization in the United States.

Softball and baseball tournaments could be housed at TEP and draw large audiences, Tiggas said.

Hotel, restaurant, rental car, and other services in the area reap about $30 million annually from the teams, players, and fans each spring, hospitality industry officials estimate.

The supervisors directed County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry to set aside $500,000 for the Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority over the next two years to develop youth and amateur sports programs – and also for travel and promotional activities to try to bring a different MLB team to TEP for spring training to offset the loss of the White Sox.

Huckelberry had recommended accepting the buyout because the TEP-White Sox lease was marginally profitable – bringing the county income of about about $500,000 from the team each spring.

Though $5 million was increased over the Sox’s earlier offer of $4 million, Huckelberry said the buyout probably would not have gone higher.

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