A recent local news story painted the picture of Lee County officials extravagantly spending taxpayer dollars to hold private parties in baseball stadium skyboxes. That is simply not the case.
Here are the facts:?Let's start with the money. The story implied the county spent about $8,700 of Lee County taxpayers' money on refreshments in the skyboxes. It didn't mention that $1,450.15 was reimbursed by an outside organization and $5,642.87 came from bed taxes. That leaves just $1,701.50 from the Department of Economic Development's general fund budget to host an annual appreciation day for the Horizon Council.
That is a modest investment toward marketing these facilities, considering visitors attending Spring Training games contribute more than $47 million to the Lee County economy each year, according to a 2009 study conducted by Davidson Peterson Associates and certified by Dr. Gary Jackson at Florida Gulf Coast University.
This leads me to why it's appropriate to bring business partners to the games. Both the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox have very large fan bases, and Lee County made a substantial investment to bring - and keep - these teams in our community. We realize the economic benefit associated not only with spring training, but also with amateur sporting events that are held at the facilities year round. It would be fiscally irresponsible not to maximize our use of the stadium for marketing purposes. In addition, both these teams have cooperated with the Department of Economic Development to promote Lee County as a business destination.
It was especially important this year, as we celebrated the grand opening of the newest spring training facility in United States, to maximize JetBlue Park's inaugural season. We did that by hosting as many media and travel trade members as possible at the Visitor & Convention Bureau's two hospitality industry events at the stadiums in March. A third event was the hosting of travel writers and a representative from Brand USA, which is helping to fund some current and future international marketing efforts. We anticipate ongoing benefits as articles are written in the future. The price tag for the three events: $4,444.67.
The Lee County Sports Authority hosted the Washington Nationals in a meeting with officials from Lee County and Fort Myers at the stadium. It also held a $604.50 event for the Lee County Schools Athletic Directors in appreciation of the use of their facilities in the summer and to promote sports tourism.
Why the thank you? The Sports Authority brought in four events last year to high school gymnasiums that generated 5,944 hotel room nights and $2.3 million in direct visitor expenditures.
Another event in question was the Lee County Parks & Recreation Advisory Committee meeting with the Sports Organization Committee, a private organization that assists with the hosting of amateur sports events in Lee County. The Lee County committee, which gathers monthly, holds its March meeting at a Spring Training game each year. However, Parks & Recreation stopped the practice of providing refreshments five years ago. The SOC reimbursed the county for the cost of all food and beverages for both committees.
Another issue brought up in the story is the allotment of tickets to the county. This has been part of the contracts with the Twins and Red Sox for many years. The tickets aid in Lee County's promotion of tourism, economic development and community good will. While Lee County does have a process in place, it does not meet the current standards for distribution of tickets. We have been working on establishing a new procedure for next season, including the tracking of tickets.
We are not perfect, but we strive to improve. We are doing our very best to be transparent, and we want to make sure that the citizens of Lee County are provided with all the facts.