Standing with a group of Seattle Mariners executives, Chuck Armstrong scanned a quiet piece of desert 17 years ago and tried to picture what government officials believed it would become.
The site was a 145-acre tract in Peoria, Ariz., so far removed from downtown Phoenix that there was no direct highway access and no nearby hotel.
The locals, however, saw the proposed Peoria Sports Complex as the future hub of commercial, tourist and sports activities in what they predicted would be a burgeoning city that would grow around it.
Armstrong, the Mariners’ president, had a hard time envisioning such a thing on that hot July day in 1992.
“I could look 360 degrees in any direction and all I could see were orange groves, cotton fields, the broken-down old Brewers minor league complex and a microwave tower,” he said. “There was no shopping center, no houses, nothing.”
Spring training in Arizona was looking just as desolate.
The Cleveland Indians were moving to Florida from their longtime home in Tucson and the Chicago Cubs were all but ready to follow. It would have left the Cactus League with only six teams.
Cities in Florida were courting other teams – the Mariners, who were leaving their original spring home in Tempe, Ariz., looked seriously into moving to Homestead – and there were efforts in Texas and Nevada to rob Arizona of all its spring training teams.
“A few places were bragging that they were going to take them all away from here,” said Robert Brinton, president of the Cactus League and executive director of the Mesa (Ariz.) Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People in Texas were saying they wanted to get in on it, and Las Vegas was ready to take our teams. Everyone was saying in the early ’90s that the Cactus League was doomed.”
Spurred by then-Gov. Rose Mofford, the Arizona Legislature created funding vehicles, mostly through tax on car rentals, to build new facilities. The Cubs got a new ballpark and stayed in Mesa, and the Peoria Sports Complex was seen as a cutting-edge facility that would become the first in baseball to host two teams for spring training.
The Mariners settled into the Peoria Sports Complex in 1994 and not only did Peoria grow up and flourish around them, so did spring training in Arizona.
This week, when players report for their first official workouts of 2009, Arizona will host 14 of baseball’s 30 major league teams. Next year, it will be an even 15-15 split between teams training in Arizona and Florida.
Two new spring training complexes have been built in the Phoenix area – the $80.7 million Camelback Ranch for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox and the $108 million Goodyear Ballpark for the Cleveland Indians and, next year, the Cincinnati Reds.
Despite a difficult economy and ticket sales that are no better than last year, spring training continues to be a huge draw for tourists and fans who will plug hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy. A 2007 study by the Cactus League Baseball Association showed that spring training crowds contributed about $310 million to the region through hotels, restaurants, golf courses, shopping and other activities.
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