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  • | 6:00 p.m. January 23, 2009
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As Lee County's point man for baseball, John

Yarbrough hopes to make Lee County the hub for

professional teams' spring training. Batting first:

the Boston Red Sox. On deck: the Baltimore Orioles.

When he worked for the Fort Myers Royals in 1978, John Yarbrough had a fancy title: assistant general manager. In reality, Yarbrough did everything from selling advertising to cooking hot dogs for the minor-league team.

Today, the 60-year-old retired veteran of the Lee County Parks and Recreation Department has been charged with coordinating a more glamorous but complicated game of musical chairs involving two major-league baseball teams: the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles.

The Red Sox have been training at the City of Palms Park in Fort Myers since 1992, but they were looking for a bigger and better stadium and courted Sarasota. "It's all about money," Yarbrough says. "If the Red Sox had not won the World Series in '04 and '07, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

In retaining the Boston team, Yarbrough argues that the Red Sox are an international draw, on par with the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. Last year, for example, 150 Japanese media photographers showed up for pitching star Daisuke Matsuzaka. "They're in a different orbit," Yarbrough says. He cites some estimates that the Red Sox generate $25 million to $30 million in business every year. "That's a big deal," he says.

Under pressure to keep the Red Sox, Lee County has agreed to build a new stadium dubbed by some as "Lil' Fenway" with a price tag estimated at $50 million to $70 million. "No one wants to be responsible for the Red Sox being driven out," Yarbrough says. What's more, he says the new stadium can be used for other events such as youth baseball tournaments, filling local hotels, restaurants and shops.

The county has more than that amount in reserves and plans to repay itself using tourism bed taxes diverted from beach-related projects. "There's plenty of money to do it," Yarbrough says. He acknowledges that the reelection of Lee County Commission Chairman Ray Judah by a wide margin in November helped move the stadium deal forward. Judah, a Republican, led the political charge to build the stadium.

The reasoning behind the self-financing scheme is that tourists will pay for the stadium, not county property owners. "It's no time to go to the bond market," Yarbrough adds.

In the meantime, Yarbrough has started discussions with the Baltimore Orioles to move them to City of Palms Park in 2012 when the new Red Sox stadium is ready for its occupants. The Orioles currently train in Fort Lauderdale.

If the county builds the new Red Sox stadium and the Orioles move here, the Fort Myers area will be home to three teams (the Minnesota Twins practice at Hammond Stadium in Lee County). And about 30 miles north of Fort Myers, the Tampa Bay Rays now train in Port Charlotte, making the area a four-team hub for the boys of spring. Some have started comparing Fort Myers to Phoenix, Ariz., which has seven major-league teams practicing in that metropolitan area. "I think four will be it for a while," Yarbrough smiles.

Yarbrough, a sixth-generation Floridian who was born and raised in Fort Myers, retired after leading the Lee County Parks and Recreations Department for 18 years. When he joined the department as athletic superintendent in 1979, it had 40 employees and a $7 million operating budget. By the time he retired in September, the department had grown to 250 employees with an annual budget of $30 million.

Under his direction, the department conserved 20,000 acres of land, built 10 swimming pools, 100 athletic fields and 50 beach accesses. "We have had sufficient dollars to expand because of impact fees," Yarbrough says, referring to the taxes the county levies on new construction. With the economic downturn, those have dried up recently.

Yarbrough says people visit and live in Lee County for the weather and outdoors. "I always saw parks and recreation as a little more important than other parts of the county," he says.

When the Red Sox told Yarbrough they were considering an offer from Sarasota, he was the first one to learn of it. "I didn't want it to go in the ditch," he says. So the county appointed Yarbrough as its point man on baseball, hiring him as a special consultant for $50,000 a year. "I've lived here all my life, so I know a lot of people," he says.

The toughest part of the Red Sox deal will be selecting whose land to buy for the stadium, Yarbrough says. Several of the more than a dozen offers include free land that would need roads, sewers and water. "All the proposers are willing to negotiate," says Yarbrough, who is not a voting member of the committee to pick the site. "The secret to most everything like that is finding a balance."

-Jean Gruss

 

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