Dean Barber

Baseball, Hot Dogs and Relationship Building

In Site Selection on March 16, 2015 at 1:19 pm

Wherever we live, whatever the culture we come from, whatever religion that we may hold, people have kicked or thrown a ball.

Probably well before people were scratching images on cave walls, they were playing with sticks and rudimentary balls. Such play, defines us as being human and brings us together.

And it was baseball, a distinctly American game that is now played worldwide, which taught me the concept and the importance of team. When I first started playing organized ball back in the ’60s, I was attending an elementary school in rural America where the principal actually took time off to work in the fields at harvest time.

I still have my trophy, with the figure of a batter on top. It is laughably small but it meant so much to me then and still does now, as it reminds me that I played second base on a team called the Pirates that won a league championship. I even played in the all-star game.

Leave it to say, baseball has been very, very good to me.

To Know the Heart and Mind of America

”Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” Jacques Barzun, the social commentator, wrote more than a quarter of a century ago.

And who cannot remember the speech given James Earl Jones, playing the role of Terrence Mann, in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.”

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

The National Pastime Comes to Florida

And they did come to Florida, specifically for baseball, starting in the late 19th century. That was about the same time that sportswriters began dropping the phrase “national pastime” into their stories.

The Philadelphia Phillies were the first of the current major-league teams to train in Florida, when they spent two weeks in Jacksonville in 1889.

By the 1920s, with improved train and auto travel, Florida was becoming the hub of spring training. The warm winters and the enticements offered by local boosters, the forefathers to today’s economic developers, began to draw the attention of baseball executives.

The importance of baseball to Florida’s economy today became quite apparent to me last week, courtesy of Enterprise Florida Inc., the public-private statewide economic development organization. I was among a dozen site selection consultants invited to come and experience Spring Training and, boy howdy, did I have a blast.

The Impact of Team Factories

Fifteen Major League Baseball (MLB) teams operate spring training facilities in Florida, which in actuality are human resource factories designed to identify the big league players of tomorrow and sharpen the skills of the veteran players. Each team facility operate year-round and employ hundreds of people, including the players, at any given time.

The Florida Sports Foundation estimates the annual economic impact of the 15 spring-training teams, which play a 241-game schedule in 14 locations in Florida’s Grapefruit League, to be $700 million in economic impact.

Last year, more than 1.47 million fans attended the spring training games, the bulk of whom were tourists from other states.

A recent report compiled by the University of West Florida’s Haas Center showed that 13.3 million visitors came to the state of Florida for the sole purpose of sports and recreation, which was responsible for $44.4 billion in total economic output, or roughly 3.5 percent of the state‘s Gross State Product.

The sports and recreation industry supports more than 431,000 jobs and contributes more than $16 billion in wages to Floridians. Now those are some strong numbers, indeed, which is why Florida is not above granting tax incentives to MLB teams that want to expand their footprint in the state.

The Spring Training Baseball Franchise incentive is the state’s funding mechanism to attract and retain MLB spring training facilities in Florida. Teams are eligible for up to $500,000 annually for up to 30 years.

These dollars are typically pledged with designated Tourist Development Tax revenue and other local government resources to secure bonds to fund the acquisition, construction, or renovation of spring training facilities. Makes sense to me.

A New Team Manager

Heading the economic development delegation that welcome us site selection consultants to the Sunshine State was Bill Johnson, the newly appointed Secretary of Commerce and president/CEO of Enterprise Florida, Inc.

I liked Bill Johnson almost immediately. For one, he frequently paid homage to his predecessor, Gray Swoope, one of the most talented economic developers in the country and who turned the mindset around about economic development in Florida.

When Gray first took the job at EFI four years ago, I thought, “What in the hell is he thinking?”

Let’s just say that Florida then was not known for embracing economic development. Indeed, economic development was viewed indifferently or even suspiciously by many, including state legislators and local government officials.

While there continues to be no-growth mentality among some, economic development is far better understood and respected in Florida today, and I give Gray, and the professional staff that he assembled at EFI, much of the credit for that attitude turnaround.

So Bill, previously the director of Port of Miami, takes over from a bit of a superstar, albeit one that has gone over to the dark side (consulting). Gray is partnering with his former boss, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, in the formation of a new firm, essentially a subsidiary of the Butler Snow law firm, called VisionFirst Advisors.

Now I sure like the sound of that. Judging from what I read on their website, I’m not quite sure what they’re going to be doing. I think it’s what former President George W. Bush would call “strategery.”

But back to Bill, a fellow who displays much energy and seems to have a deep understanding of the importance of logistics and infrastructure, which should prove advantageous to both recruiting new companies and expanding existing ones in the state.

But even with his very solid background, Bill will do well to listen to Griff Salmon, executive vice president and COO; and Melissa Medley, senior vice president and chief marketing officer. These two are consummate pros, who left top economic development positions in Mississippi to join Gray at EFI. They have done great service to Florida and I hope they stay.

When Bill first addressed the consultants, he said the intention of our time together was not to talk about business but to simply have fun. But during the course of my 3 1/2 days in Florida, I talked with a lot of economic developers about their communities.

I also got to see the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday in Tampa; the Detroit Tigers play the Philadelphia Phillips in Lakeland on Thursday, and the Atlanta Braves play the Detroit Tigers on Friday in Kissimmee.

This was relationship building at its best, just using a backdrop of spring training baseball to bring us – the consultants and the economic developers — together. And that is what baseball does so well.

We talked over hot dogs and beers, about local major employers, workforce development initiatives and the aerospace industry, among other things, all the while watching the games. And it really doesn’t get any better than that.

Yes, baseball has been very, very good to me.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-767-9518.

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