Henning: Even with the Tigers sidelined, business in Lakeland is booming

Detroit News
Lynn Henning |  The Detroit News

Lakeland, Florida – This once-humdrum Florida town that was built among citrus groves and phosphate mines and for 88 years has been the Tigers’ spring home might be considered Detroit’s sister city.

Lakeland: Folks from Michigan think of it as a kind of Nirvana. As a birthplace, each year, for sunshine and green grass, and for the relief of spring, all as baseball returns to consciousness and conversation on these TigerTown fields with Marchant Stadium as center piece.

It spurs the annual February and March pilgrimages here. The stream of Michigan license plates. The countless people who decide to make Lakeland, or some place in or near Polk County, their winter home or retirement address.

And, in most years, it is the reason why hotels and restaurants during February and March are jammed with tourists, so many from Michigan, with most of them keen on seeing the Tigers and spring camp at the place they’ve been hearing about, reading about, and even dreaming about, for years.

Which invites a question wired to events and news from 2022: Just how hard is Lakeland getting socked by the MLB labor standoff?

With the big-leaguers shut out of camp, and with Grapefruit League games already being lost to a lockout that has no serious sign of end, it would be natural to assume Lakeland’s commerce has taken a knockout punch when the Tigers for so long have been key to a city and county’s February-March revenue.

Not the case. There’s been a bit of a dip in hotel reservations, local tourism experts say, but overall, so many other realities are tied to 2022 that baseball’s delayed start hasn’t had any undue effect.

A brief, thoroughly non-scientific, piece of evidence came Thursday night during a stop-off at a favorite dining place, Scarpa’s, which was jammed throughout the evening hours.

Turns out, it was pretty much in step with all the other restaurants in town. Whether during lunch at Frescos (inside or at a sun-splashed streetside table), or maybe for a drink and light meal at Applebee’s, or at a mandatory return to Texas Cattle Co. – wherever – the tables and booths and bars have been swarmed.

A few reasons, the experts say, for why the Tigers’ relative absence hasn’t been felt to any serious degree:

•COVID, ironically, has probably led to a dramatic rebound and to what has been 10 months of steady Polk County tourism, with each of those 10 months setting a record. Folks have been pent-up since March of 2020 and are aching to travel. They tend to have money that likewise has been confined and seeks a happy outlet after earlier trips were canceled or put off.

•Amazon has sunk roots in Lakeland and nearby Auburndale with two huge warehouses (700,000 square feet in Lakeland; 1 million square feet in Auburndale). Fifteen cargo flights daily now drop at the Lakeland airport, which Amazon made its hub after transferring from Tampa International Airport.

•Population is expanding and housing has exploded. There are 1,200 homes being built at a development on Pipkin Road, near the Lakeland airport.

So, while the Tigers are missed, businesses, for the most part, haven’t been knee-capped by a MLB lockout that could push the regular season and Opening Day deep into April, if not later.

“People from Michigan are still coming down,” said Jack Cormier, a longtime newspaper reporter who now works as communications specialist for Polk County Sports Marketing. “And I think it goes back to the almost-ancestral linkage between the two areas. We may have the Rays (Tampa Bay) here. But in a lot of ways, we’re a Detroit town.”

History and heritage are deep, indeed.

The Tigers began coming to Lakeland in 1934, and other than some time off during World War II, they have been here every year since. TigerTown, in fact, is a converted World War II fighter-pilot training base spanning 84 acres.

The great ballpark known as Marchant Stadium – officially, these days, it’s Publix Field at Marchant Stadium – was built in 1966 after the Tigers departed downtown Henley Field.

There has been all manner of expansion and renovation and restoration, topped by a $48-million re-do of the ballpark and the construction of offices and training areas that were finished in 2017.

So, the folks keep coming. Just as they did Wednesday night, for the annual Tiger Barbecue, within Marchant Stadium’s concourses, which in most years is where the locals and Michigan travelers can expect to maybe sit and have pulled pork, roasted corn, and baked beans – and a drink – alongside Tigers players and staff.

Even with the big-leaguers and Tigers brass missing, last week’s party still drew a sellout crowd of 600.

Kris Keprios, who is senior tourism sales and marketing manager for Visit Central Florida, said he heard Wednesday night one, abiding line from Michigan folks at the barbecue:

“We’re still down here for some sun, and to thaw out,” Keprios said, quoting the partiers.

How much the Tigers travelers might adjust schedules, for this now-certain back-up in workouts and Grapefruit League games, can’t yet be measured.

But with people itching to put winter in their rearview-mirror, folks seem still to have in mind a trek to Lakeland, where the Tigers aren’t the only thing going. The visitors still play golf, still fish for bass or opt for a nature walk at Circle B Bar Reserve, still head for LEGOLAND in Winter Haven (20 minutes away).

“I’d like to say we have all the comforts of Michigan,” Cormier said, dryly, “but I still haven’t found a decent Coney dog yet.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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