Guest commentary: Cubs present irresistible opportunity for Collier County

As a member of the city of Naples Blue Ribbon Finance Planning Committee this past spring, I became very aware of the significant financial situation the city of Naples — and Collier County — is facing. The property values, sales tax revenue and tourist contribution to the economy are all declining. This will result in a decrease of government services, an increase in taxes or both. It’s my hope that community leaders, business leaders and political leaders work together to reverse these trends. The problem is that our choices are limited.

Many of us first came to Naples as tourists, deciding to retire or purchase second homes here. We stayed because of the weather, culture, beaches, boating, golfing or volunteering. But there is another segment of the population in Naples — those who just want to work and provide for their families. They work in the retail stores, restaurants, hotels or private clubs. They work in the government offices, service and support industries or the health-care system. But with an increasing number of empty storefronts, a decline in construction jobs and an obvious decrease in year-round tourism, jobs are disappearing and our unemployment rate is growing. So what can Naples and Collier County do to encourage businesses to move here to increase the economic base?

The opportunity to bring the Chicago Cubs to Collier County seems like it would provide a real “bang for the buck.”

Many “non-fans” may not be aware that the Cubs are by far the largest draw in spring training among all Major League teams. In fact, the team brings nearly twice the attendance and double the revenue compared to the other leading draws in both Arizona and Florida. Take the Boston Red Sox as an example. They sold 118,000 tickets last spring. The Cubs sold 203,000 tickets.

Naples prides itself on having the highest quality of lifestyle and culture in Florida. The Cubs brand is a perfect fit.

The proposed Chicago Cubs spring-training facility isn’t only about spring. It is not just a six-week, 16-home-game season. It appears the concept — designated “Project Home Run!” — would include the Cubs moving their player-development and scouting headquarters to Naples. Moving a minor league team here is an April-to-September season. Additionally, the facility could provide student-development academies that include baseball and other sports. There would be no offseason, as the facilities would be used to host entertainment, charitable and other public events.

All this without one penny of property taxes or without one penny of sales taxes. The discussion around the possible use of tourist-development funds combined with private investment makes sense. The tourist tax is a fee that is already paid for hotel, short-term private room rentals and similar items. It is paid by tourists and not citizens of Collier County. The opportunity to increase our community’s economy without having to pay for it personally seems a very logical strategy. More tourists year-round would mean more Tourist Development Council money for the projects funded by the TDC.

Just up the road, Lee County reports that the Red Sox spring training means an estimated $24 million of direct spending to their economy each year — only accounting for the spring-training season. The city of Mesa, Ariz., claims the loss of the Cubs means more than $50 million to its economy annually.

Chicago-based Esmark and Naples-based Fifth Avenue Advisors initiated the discussion with the Cubs and have stated that private investors will provide a significant portion of this public/private investment to make a year-round destination work. Major beneficiaries will not only be the construction workers who will build the 15,000-seat stadium, six practice fields, associated facilities, offices and “Wrigley Village,” but also the more than 600 people who will be hired for professional and support functions. The hotel industry will certainly benefit. Countless other small businesses supporting the tourist industry in Collier County will benefit. And just think of the advertising benefits of our beautiful town entering into 70 million homes on four continents thanks to the WGN superstation that broadcasts Cubs spring games.

Most municipalities would love to have the opportunity that is nearly before us, except most have to fund the entire stadium construction via taxes to get a Major League team. We should do everything we can to encourage our community to embrace this important chance to invigorate our economy with the exact type of project that fits us so well. It is more than possible that if we build it, Cubs fans will come to Naples for spring training and will want to return, again and again.

Easton is a retired IBM international marketing consultant.