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Spring training scores big for Southwest Florida



You never know what you might find at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers.

If you get to the game early, you may be able to get a flu shot from the mobile clinic out front. Or get a few line drives off at batting practice to raise money for a local charity. Maybe you’ll get to see the majestic Budweiser Clydesdales as they pull a truck-sized wagon full of beer into the lane in front of the stadium. (If that’s the case, get out of the way. The draft horses are reported to be able to pull a 1-ton load each.)

It’s a good symbol for spring training in Southwest Florida, actually, which pulls a large economic load for the area. Lee County reports that it garners $50 million in direct visitor spending each year, thanks to its hosting of spring training for the Minnesota Twins and the Boston Red Sox (about $25 million from each team). Charlotte County reports that its Tampa Bay Rays brought in just over $16 million last year. The games are a major draw—some 52.8 percent of overnight visitors reported that attending a spring training game was a primary factor in bringing them to Charlotte County. And the revenue generated is money that keeps local businesses afloat, employs many locals and supports local charities.
 It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Hammond Stadium, home to the Minnesota Twins for spring training, completed a $48.5 million renovation in 2015 that was supported with dollars from a bed tax, which is a local charge levied on hotel rooms in the area. In return, the team signed a 30-year lease and agreed to stay in the area through at least 2044. (The Twins organization let us poke around and talk to fans during a couple of games last season.)

And then there’s the experience. For many, an evening baseball game is the quintessential summer outing (except that here, it happens in March). The evenings are delightfully mild, with the sun setting in the pink and orange sky. Two and three generations of families gleefully take their seats and get ready to cheer on their favorite team. Grandparents explain what’s happening on the field to grandchildren. The scents of popcorn and hot dogs waft through the air and loud music pumps up the crowd.

As part of its recent renovation, Hammond Stadium added several seating choices, in an attempt to serve all customers at all price points. There is lawn seating—grassy areas where families can let their little ones run freely during the sometimes-long hours of a game, casual general admission seating behind chair rails, and a 360-degree boardwalk that enables fans to walk around the entire park during the game. Tickets at Hammond range from $9-$30.

Seventy-one-year-old Bruce Bonafeld came to the area for a few months last winter from Lakeville, Minnesota, “to get out of the cold,” he says, though spring training was a plus. He was able to attend four games but would have come to more had the tickets been less costly. He was in “porch seating,” an alternative that was added with the renovation. Situated around the outfield area, the seats have a more casual feeling, almost like bar stools, behind a railing. These tickets are about $20. Though he says he loves the new stadium, it hasn’t been entirely positive for him: “They raised the prices when they renovated the stadium,” he says. “They’re too pricey now for spring training.”

But not everyone agrees. Rita Bowles and her partner, Ray Mohr, live in Fort Myers and love to come to Hammond. “We ride our bikes here,” she says. “As far as we are concerned, we could have 25 spring training teams nearby and we’d be happy.” Rita’s son and daughter-in-law, CJ and Patricia, brought their two sons, Lucas, 1, and Gabriel, 5, to the lawn seating to watch the Twins take on the Baltimore Orioles. The whole family (originally from the Baltimore area) was decked out in Orioles gear. Gabriel played catch with his grandmother in the grassy area before the game started. “This is our favorite stadium,” Rita says. “It’s so fan-centered and the workers are great.”

Sheila Francis, 71, of Fort Myers, is one of those workers, although she never meant to be. She and her husband, Paul, retired to the area about 16 years ago. Paul got a job at the stadium right away. “Before we were even unpacked, Paul’s boss asked whether I would want to work here too,” she says. She’s been there ever since, pouring draft beers at a kiosk behind third base. “I love the people I meet here. One customer, I remember when she was pregnant. She was here the other night with her daughter, who’s now a teenager.” Francis arrives for a night game around 4:30 (“After 15 years I know what I’m doing,” she says with a laugh) and wraps up at the end of the seventh inning.

Francis and her husband are two of many workers who came to the stadium for retirement jobs. But not everyone is in a second career. Vicki Mattras, 53, has worked at the stadium for eight years. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, she too serves draft beers to fans. She’s stationed near the entrance to the stadium on the recently enlarged deck area. Her only complaint? “I can’t see the game!” she says, in her enthusiastic Australian brogue. But she loves working at the Twins stadium. “Minnesota people are awesome.”

No matter your age, where you’re from, or even your interest level in baseball, the spring training games in Lee and Charlotte counties have something to offer. Not only do they pump money into the local economy, they add a terrific entertainment option for the family, and that’s true if you’re visiting or live here all year long. 

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