The long-awaited day has finally arrived. The tax-funded Beantown Boondoggle that some like to call Fenway South is open, with crowds filling the stadium and cash flowing north.
But don't call it Fenway South. Call it Jet Blue Park. Call it that because the airline handed the Red Sox a bunch of money. How much money? Well, it's none of your business. The team won't say. It's just one more piece of this $100 million deal (the county admits to $78 million) that works in favor of the team, not those who are paying and will continue to pay for this taxpayer-funded complex.
It should come as no surprise. Little in this deal, foisted on the county when Sox officials claimed to their compliant good friend Commissioner Ray Judah they were being wooed elsewhere, has been for the benefit of those living and working in Lee County.
And it was unnecessary. The Sox had no place to go. No other potential Spring Training home had the money or the willingness to fork it over. I was covering the Sox saga as a Naples Daily News reporter then, and talked to officials elsewhere who were flabbergasted Lee County commissioners would even contemplate the kind of expenditure the team demanded. Those officials elsewhere were prioritizing local needs over the desires of the team, a radical notion, and couldn't believe their Lee counterparts would meet the exorbitant demands while axing employees, eliminating projects and slashing human service spending.
Carefully avoiding the fact that the economy was in the tank, that the other potential suitors were without the funding or the willingness to meet the grandiose demands of the team, and that the Red Sox quite simply had no place else to go, Judah went for it. He wheedled, cajoled, browbeat and borrowed from Peter to pay billionaire team owner John Henry, ignoring opposition from the Tourist Development Council, the city of Fort Myers and his fellow commissioners as well as the pleas of thousands of his constituents.
Southwest Florida does love baseball. I love baseball. I have coached in my local Little League and was president there for many years. I also volunteer time as a softball coach at my daughter's high school.
Commissioner Judah himself is a former Little League coach and, like most Americans, a baseball fan. But this is not or should not have been - about baseball. This is about the proper stewardship of Lee County tax dollars. This is about what should and should not be done with the money our government takes from us.
So as fans and players gush over the new stadium and they are and as Commissioner Judah basks in the glow of adulation from his northeastern friends again, he is remember how we got here. Remember the empty City of Palms Park a few miles away, still being paid for by the taxpayers of Fort Myers. Remember the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates in the country. Remember the thousands of your neighbors whose lives were falling apart as your elected representative scrambled around catering to the team.
Red Sox officials can be counted on to tell a different story. They will describe Judah's acquiescence to their every whim as a heroic effort to save the county from economic disaster. They will repeat the canard that they were fielding attractive offers elsewhere. No surprise there. They must protect their representative on the board, after all. In a few years when the team decides the complex needs $25 million in upgrades they will want their guy in place to make sure it happens.
There is another way. Commissioner Judah has been in office since he was first elected as a Democrat in 1988. Tell him 24 years is long enough. Tell him you want someone serving the people of Lee County, not millionaire ballplayers and billionaire owners looking for a new playground for a few short weeks each spring. Tell him local needs and local problems have to take precedence over monuments to excess. Tell him no.
Whitehead is a candidate for Lee County commission in District 3.
(Whitehead covered Lee County government for 24 years. He reported extensively on the Red Sox deal with the county and the stadium.)