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Thursday, March 24, 2011
Updated: March 28, 2:55 PM ET
Spring training is home run for local economy

The Detroit Tigers are celebrating their 75th year of spring training in Lakeland, Fla., the longest tenure of any major league baseball team in one location. The residents of Lakeland could not be more grateful that streak is alive and well.

Living Hope Community Church is located down the street from Joker Marchant Stadium, and when spring training hits, the church allows fans to park in its lot. However, because the church is a nonprofit, it doesn't charge, said Tony Delross, who heads Living Hope's parking operation during Tigers games. But the church does accept donations.

Delross said that during a Tigers-Red Sox game this year, the church parked 180 cars in its lot and received $914 in donations. That money goes toward outreach programs, toy drives and food drives, especially during Christmas and Thanksgiving, said the church's pastor, Dr. Richard Harris.

"We believe God has placed us within the vicinity of the stadium, and we're going to make good use of that," Harris said.

Harris also noted that people would rather give a donation and walk a little extra than give money to a less deserving cause closer to the stadium.

Spring training also has a direct impact on Lakeland's economy.

Delicia Ebare, manager of Charlie's Family Restaurant, which is located across the street from the stadium, said her business goes up about 30-40 percent in the month of March.

"Spring training is a guaranteed income," she said. "We wish it would last longer."

Ebare points out that even the downside of being across from the stadium turns into a positive for the restaurant.

"It backs up traffic and people stop and look over here," she said.

Even when March comes to a close, the Tigers still generate revenue for Lakeland, as people flock to the city throughout the year to see where the Tigers play spring training ball, Ebare said.

Sam Daskundu, owner of the Relax Inn, the closest hotel to Joker Marchant, said his business also typically skyrockets 30-40 percent during spring training. A lot of Daskundu's guests in March are from Michigan, and those people wouldn't visit Lakeland if it weren't for the Tigers.

"The Tigers are the biggest revenue generator in the month of March," he said.

Spring training pumps about $25 million to $35 million into the local economy each season, according to Glenn Higgins, a city commissioner for Lakeland.

"That money goes to local restaurants, hotels and retail shops," he said.

Lakeland also receives 6 cents on every dollar, called a bed tax, from every hotel in Lakeland, Higgins said, meaning big bucks for Lakeland when tourists head south for Tigers games and need a place to stay.

There are also some unconventional benefits for local businesses when spring training comes to town.

Norm Klooster owns Gulf Coast Auto Glass Service, which is right across the street from McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla., the spring training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. When balls fly out of the park and break the windshields of cars in the neighborhood, the Pirates foot the bill and send those people to Klooster's auto glass shop. Each time a baseball breaks a windshield, it costs the Pirates about $500, Klooster said, and that typically happens about four or five times a season. Since there is no official parking lot for the stadium, Klooster also benefits from his shop's proximity to the field. Every game, he allows fans to park in his lot. The lot can fit 82 cars and Klooster charges $10 a pop.

"We sell out every game," he said.

The parking gig is so good that Klooster has an agreement with the owner of the tire shop, which sits on Klooster's property. Every game day, the tire shop owner must close up early and head home, so that neither he nor his customers will take up parking spots.

Community Tire Service, which also resides across the street from McKechnie, benefits in a completely different way. Owner Monty Hardesty pointed out that often fans will drop off their cars to be serviced while they're at the game. Fans avoid the cost of parking while simultaneously taking care of whatever auto repairs are necessary.

And for Popi's Place owner Gus Johnson, spring training is a double play for business. Popi's Place is both the closest restaurant and parking lot to the field. About 7,000 people attend each Pirates game, Johnson said, and he receives about 5 percent of those customers every game day.

"My business goes up about 20-to-30 percent during March," he said.

And when it comes to parking, Johnson charges $10 a car, which amounts to about $300 to $400 each game.

"We have a lot of handicapped people come and we're the closest lot to the stadium, so we're offering a service," he said.

One season, a fan from New Jersey called Johnson two weeks ahead of time to make sure Popi's was still open and to reserve a spot for when she came down for a Pirates spring training game.

"She came and hugged me like I was her son when she got down here," he said.

So what would happen to business if spring training ever left Bradenton?

"It would probably be slow," Johnson said.