A group of Detroit Tigers players listens to instructions from a coach during spring training. The Tigers first came to Lakeland for spring training in 1934 and, except for a three-year interruption during World War II, have been here ever since. | Lakeland Public Library

Big changes are in the works for Tigertown — but to a part of the complex that fans rarely see. 

The Lakeland City Commission unanimously approved a proposal Monday to demolish three buildings and a hangar at the southeast end of the Detroit Tigers’ spring training facility on Lakeland Hills Boulevard. They will be replaced with a 4-story, $33 million structure that includes a dormitory, cafeteria and recreation hall for players.

Under the agreement, the city will contribute $4 million, the Tigers will put in $4 million, and up to $25 million will be financed with bonds that the city will issue and the Tigers will repay in full. 

The deal also extends the Tigers’ lease for an additional seven years, taking it through December 2044.

If everything goes according to plan, Bob Donahay said: “We’d hope to put shovels in the ground by late spring or early summer, and we project it to be around a 16-month construction timeline.” Donahay is the director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts department.

The location of a proposed 4-story, $33 million building with a dormitory, cafeteria and recreation hall is show in yellow.

The buildings slated for demolition include Fetzer Hall — a 3-story players’ and coaches’ dormitory that was built in 1971 and renovated in 2007. It was named for John Fetzer, who owned the team from 1961 to 1983. The city’s $4 million contribution was previously set aside for remodeling Fetzer Hall, but would be shifted to construction instead.

Donahay said the building’s current footprint is antiquated, like college dormitories of the 1970s. “You’ve got two beds in each room with closets that are kind of built into the wall and the bathrooms and showers are all shared facilities down the hallway,” he said. 

By contrast, the new dorm would be “more of a Marriott-type of building.” Each of the 75 rooms would have a private bathroom.

The dormitory is used by minor league players, visitors and participants in various training camps. Donahay said major league players typically stay in area hotels or rent homes during spring training.

Other buildings slated for demolition are the minor league clubhouse and the cafeteria building.

Renovations of the clubhouse’s rec room and dorm lobby were featured on the reality renovation show “DIY to the Rescue” in 2007. Season 7, episode 1 showed a makeover of the clubhouse from a “mental institution” vibe with white walls and doctors’-waiting-room-style furniture to a royal blue, sports-bar-like den with lots of Tiger pride. 

The makeover of Fetzer Hall’s first floor was shown in episode 2. Later that year, the second and third floors were renovated by Rodda Construction at a cost of $1 million.

The construction proposal does not affect the 8,000-seat Joker Marchant Stadium, which underwent a $47 million renovation in 2017. The stadium and practice fields stand on 17 acres of land previously occupied by the Lakeland Municipal Airport and leased by the Lodwick School of Aeronautics from 1940 to 1945 to train pilots for World War II.

Donahay said there are still three large hangars that date back to the World War II era. 

“One of those will be demolished,” Donahay said. “It’s the one that’s closest to the project and it’s also the one that’s in very bad shape. Some of the concrete pillars don’t even touch the ground anymore and the roof leaks badly when it rains. It’s by far the worst of the three.”

The Detroit Tigers have held spring training in Lakeland since 1934, making it the longest continuous relationship between a spring training city and a major league baseball team. The team initially trained at Henley Field, and moved to the present location in 1966.

The Tigers will have exclusive naming rights to the new dormitory building, but will give 25% of the revenue to the city, to be spent on future maintenance and capital improvements to Tigertown.

At an agenda study session Friday, Commissioner Chad McLeod asked why the city would issue the bonds instead of the Tigers. 

Finance Director Mike Brossart said the bonds would not qualify for tax-exempt status because of the nature of the project, but the city would still get a more favorable interest rate than the Tigers could qualify for on their own. Also, the city would ultimately own the facility.

“We are getting a $33 million building for $4 million,” Brossart said. And although the operation and maintenance of Tigertown costs Lakeland about $800,000 annually, he said the economic impact of the city’s relationship with the Tigers has been estimated at $55 million to $60 million a year.

Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley asked what might happen if the Tigers were to leave prematurely, for instance if the team moved to Arizona.

City Attorney Palmer Davis said the Tigers would still have to pay for the bonds; the city would be shielded from financial losses. He added, “If there are any cost overruns associated with the project, the Tigers are responsible for that.”

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Cindy Glover moved to Lakeland in 2021 after spending two decades in South Florida. She was a crime reporter, City Hall reporter and chief political writer for newspapers including the Albuquerque Journal and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. She spent a year as a community engagement coordinator for the City of Lakeland before joining LkldNow. Reach her at cindy@lkldnow.com or 561-212-3429.

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