LAKEWOOD RANCH —When Troy Branham became president of Lakewood Ranch Little League this season, he took the same stance as his predecessor on an issue that has proven bigger than baseball: advertising signs.
Branham, just like David Dees, sees the bright, sturdy — and noncompliant — signs that hang from the fences along the walkway at Lakewood Ranch Park as the only way to pay the bills.
“We need business advertising to sustain ourselves,” Branham said. “If not, we can retract the league because we can’t survive.”
But Manatee County’s Youth/Adult League Manual says advertising signs must be made of vinyl, and in a private meeting Feb. 20, almost two years after a dispute over the signs began, county officials told Branham that Lakewood Ranch Little League’s advertising signs must comply with policy.
Ed Hunzeker, Manatee County administrator, and Charlie Hunsicker, director of the county’s Parks and Natural Resources Department, instructed Branham to meet with the little league’s board members to come up with a timeline to remove the signs and bring them to code.
“We want them to meet the standards every one else complies with,” Hunzeker said. “How come other leagues are surviving and thriving while following the rules, but Lakewood Ranch can’t?”
The two sides meet again March 19, at which time Branham will either agree to comply or challenge the county’s position.
Although he hasn’t decided to do so yet, Branham can try to save the signs by requesting a proposal to change the Parks and Natural Resources Department’s Youth/Adult League Manual, written in 2003.
The board of county commissioners, which took testimony about the league’s concerns in February 2013, would then have to review the policy and debate whether it’s valid.
“I told the county we would try to find a workable solution,” Branham said. “Unfortunately, this is not a compromise at all. The policy needs to be changed. It’s an old document. Costs continue to rise, and we have found a revenue source that works for us.”
The county says its policy is meant to protect players and county property.
It has said Lakewood Ranch Little League’s signs violate county requirements on several levels — from material to placement to installation requirements.
The department’s Youth/Adult League Manual says: “All (advertising) signs must be made of vinyl and have vents for air flow. Signs may not face outward toward a street or parking area.”
By the end of last year’s meeting with commissioners, little league officials agreed to adjust how signs hang, eliminating the 1.5-inch bolts the league had been using.
But the ads, paid for by businesses such as Subway and Dick’s Sporting Goods, stayed in the same place, and continued to be printed on harder, non-vinyl material.
Hunzeker assumed the issue in February 2013 and has allowed the signs to stay since then.
The games have gone on too, with the little league season beginning three weeks ago.
Branham says the league has made adjustments to find other sources of revenue.
Although baseball games continue to happen on weeknights, when they require lighting, and as a result, expenses rise, the little league held its opening day (for minors and T-ball players) from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on a Saturday.
“It was an all around great day,” Branham said. “(Weekend day games) are something to look at. But on Saturdays, it’s difficult for our coaches to field teams given how many kids play other sports.”
County officials have also suggested the league host tournaments to raise funds — and the league has.
But, Branham says, as a nonprofit organization, Lakewood Ranch Little League cannot simply charge other users for playing on public fields.
The league is limited to making money on concessions, he says.
“And we don’t really have the manpower to host regular tournaments,” Branham said.
Branham has also partnered with one company, Gator Air Conditioning, on advertisements printed on the mesh material that lines the outfield fences.
He isn’t sold on the stability of ink-printed signs, which follow county code.
“It’s too early to tell about the product life,” Branham said. “We don’t want to lose sponsors because we have an inferior product.”
Branham did not respond to inquiries regarding little league finances for 2013.
The league operated at a $10,758 loss in 2012, with lightings costs ($32,524) being its largest expense.
Advertising signs earned the league $11,358 in revenue in 2012.
While financial concerns linger, the league continues to fund park improvements.
A $5,000 grant from the Bradenton Marauders and some $4,000 in county money helped fund improvements to the park’s batting cages last summer. Branham said the project cost $16,000.
The league will also spend money to add safety netting above its concession area with the help of another $5,000 Bradenton Marauders grant.
“People want to play at our ballpark,” Branham said.
Hunzeker views the park’s perks in a different way.
“The league claims they have financial challenges,” Hunzeker said. “OK, prove it. We haven’t seen numbers that support financial distress. And even if they did, Lakewood Ranch must follow the rules.”
May 2012 — Marcus Francis, parks and recreation supervisor, visits Lakewood Ranch Park and notices the signs.
JUNE 7, 2012 — Francis sends an email to all of the county’s little leagues reminding them to remove all signs and banners by June 22, marking the end of the spring season.
December 2012 — David Dees, former Lakewood Ranch Little League president, meets with Cindy Turner, former parks and recreation director, at the league’s fields.
Dec. 21, 2012 — After investigating the sign policies of other counties and the rules of McKechnie Field, the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training facility in Bradenton, Turner finds the policies to be similar and writes a letter to Dees ordering the removal of the league’s signs by Jan. 11.
Dec. 27, 2012 — Francis sends a similar email to all of the leagues, telling them to remove by Jan. 11 signs that don’t pass code, at which point the county would remove them.
January 2013 — Commissioner Vanessa Baugh visits the fields, at the league’s request. The issue is referred to the county attorney’s Risk Management Division for review.
Feb. 5, 2013 — A letter Turner wrote to Dees confirms findings from the county attorney, who found the signs in violation of county rules, and orders the signs’ removal by Feb. 15.
Feb. 6, 2013 — Francis makes the same request to all of the leagues in an email.
Feb. 12, 2013 — Commissioners hear testimony from the little league. Hunzeker says he will have a final say on the signs.
Feb. 20, 2014 — Branham, new little league president, meets with Hunzeker and county staff, who tell him the signs must comply with county policy.
March 19, 2014 — Branham will come back to Hunzeker with a timeline to comply with policy — or make a proposal to contest the policy.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].