Dunedin's search for a big-company sponsor to put its name on Dunedin Stadium ended with a small-business friend in their backyard stepping up to the plate.
The spring home of the Toronto Blue Jays is now Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, named for the bustling used car dealership at the intersection of Main Street and Belcher Road. Stadium signage was erected the first week in January.
Dealership owner Jeffrey Rhoads, a 26-year city resident and a self-proclaimed Dunedin lover, will pay the city $181,000 through 2017 for the naming rights.
The money is earmarked for improvement projects at the stadium, Dunedin parks and recreation director Vince Gizzi said.
"The city gets some badly needed revenue, and I think it's going to be win-win for both of us," Rhoads said. "For years I've sponsored all kinds of events in Dunedin to support the community. This, of course, is on a much bigger scale. ... I'm glad I'm financially able to step up."
Rhoads said Florida Auto Exchange ranks consistently as a top volume seller among car dealerships in Pinellas County, per state sales records. The roughly $25,000 per year the company will pay for the stadium naming rights represents about 10 percent of its annual advertising budget, he said.
Stadium facility upgrades, such as fencing, roofing and disabaled access compliance, now can stay on schedule and will not have to be put off because of city budget shortfalls, Gizzi said.
Dunedin's naming rights contract with telecommunications provider Knology expired after the 2008 minor league baseball season, which left the city seeking a new sponsor during a recession. The timing presented a great challenge.
An ad hoc naming rights committee was formed that included residents, Gizzi said, and hundreds of solication efforts were made to the largest advertisers in the Bay area without success.
Rhoads said he toyed with the idea of securing the stadium naming rights in 2008, spurred on by his friend, neighbor and former Blue Jays director of Florida operations Ken Carson. Florida Auto Exchange had been a longtime corporate sponsor of the Blue Jays on a small scale.
Talks between Rhoads and the city became serious last year and the deal was struck in the fall.
Florida Auto Exchange Stadium now will be a name heard across North America during television highlights of Spring Training baseball games. But the international exposure is of no significance to the company. They're strictly a local company.
"In my mind, just having your name on a stadium may make the business seem bigger than it is and add some credibility to it," Rhoads said. "For the run of mill person who doesn't know Florida Auto Exchange, they might see this and think, 'They're doing something right.'"