By Carrie Muskat
Mesa, Ariz., and Naples, Fla., out to persuade new ownership
The cities of Mesa, Ariz., and Naples, Fla., are gearing up for a battle over the Cubs.
On Thursday, officials from Chicago-based Esmark Inc. and Naples-based Fifth Avenue Advisors held a news conference in Naples announcing their intent to convince the team to move from Arizona to Collier County in Florida.
Tom and Laura Ricketts, siblings who are part of the Cubs’ new ownership group, and Cubs chairman Crane Kenney recently visited the Naples area to look at possible sites.
The team is looking for a minimum of 120 contiguous acres for a 15,000-seat stadium, six practice fields, parking, and training complex that would be an 11-month operation. The Cubs need an updated facility and appear to have “outgrown” their current site in Mesa, one Florida official said during the news conference at the Naples Bath & Tennis Club.
The Florida proposal would include a “Wrigley village” to create a destination for Cubs fans. One official said he felt Tom Ricketts and Kenney were focused not only on what’s best for the team, but “it was about what is the best experience for our fans.”
The biggest hurdle in luring the Cubs away from Arizona? According to one Florida official, it’s the comfort level the team has with Mesa, which has been the Cubs’ Spring Training home since the 1950s. The Cubs have been at their current location since 1979.
Mesa city leaders amped up their efforts on Wednesday, and mayor Scott Smith said they will do everything possible to keep the Cubs in Arizona.
“We’re simply not going to let it happen,” Smith said about the possibility of the Cubs leaving during a news conference at HoHoKam Stadium on Wednesday.
Tom Ricketts and other Cubs officials will be in Mesa next week for the team’s organizational meetings, and city officials have called in state executives to help deliver their sales pitch. The Cubs delegation will be treated to a private reception featuring Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams (R-Mesa) and other officials. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is expected to address the reception via a video hookup.
Mesa officials planned on showing the team at least four sites, believed to be located along Loop 202 from the city’s northern edge to the Gateway area, where Gaylord Entertainment Co. plans to build a large resort and conference center. That center is part of a large-scale development near Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
The Cubs’ contract with Mesa and HoHoKam Stadium allows the team to buy out of the deal after 2012.
On Thursday, Craig Bouchard, co-founder of Esmark, said the impression he got after meeting with the Ricketts was that the new owners want to change the destiny of the Cubs.
“It’s very clear they want to win a World Series,” Bouchard said.
The Florida group pointed out to the Cubs officials that 16 of the past 19 teams to win the World Series have trained in the Sunshine State.
Told that Mesa plans to match anything that Naples will do, Bouchard said: “We have a better beach — that would be my first response.”
There is no deadline, Bouchard said, adding that the Florida group was in the initial stages of its proposal. He said the Cubs would be making a 30-year commitment to whichever site they pick, and although there’s no official deadline, he expected a decision within the next three to six months. That would give the winning city time to get the new facility ready.
“We’re not going to worry about Mesa, Ariz.,” Bouchard said. “They’re going to put a great offer on the table. All we’re going to do is put together a strong private investment group. We have a lot of work to do. We’re going to ask a lot of people to help us. We’ll find our best offer and say, ‘This is our best offer.'”
The Florida group, which has created a Web site, floridacubs.com, does not plan on getting into a bidding war with Mesa, Bouchard said.
If the Cubs stay in Mesa, the city would be building the fourth Spring Training site for the team in its nearly 60-year tenure. Arizona officials may not have an ocean, but one of their selling points is the average travel time between sites in Florida’s Grapefruit League is three hours, while the close-knit Cactus League boasts travel times averaging only about 30 minutes.
The Cubs’ Cactus League home games averaged 10,700 fans in 2009, compared with 5,800 for all other Cactus League teams. A recent study said if the Cubs were replaced by an “average” Cactus League team, the overall loss to Arizona’s economy would be $52.2 million a year.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.