Build It or They Might Leave

Florida Today broke the news on March 30 that the Washington Nationals would tour City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Lee County.

The Nationals wouldn’t comment, but clearly Lee County officials viewed this as an opportunity to lure the major league team’s spring training and minor league operations away from Viera.

The Boston Red Sox currently occupy the facility, but are moving to a nearby complex in 2012.

Space Coast Stadium, the Nats’ current spring home, is owned by Brevard County and leased to the team. The Nationals sublease the facility to the Brevard County Manatees of the Florida State League, a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate independently owned by a local group.

Florida Today reported the next day that county officials were caught unaware of the Nationals’ interest in Fort Myers. “The Nationals are under contract to play at Space Coast Stadium in Viera through Dec. 31, 2017,” the paper reported.

The article quoted Kevin Reichard of Ballpark Digest as ranking Fort Myers inferior to Viera. The ballparks at both sites are about the same age, but the minor league complex in Fort Myers is two miles away while the Viera fields are adjacent to Space Coast Stadium.

The Fort Myers News-Press reported today on yesterday’s Nats tour of Fort Myers. The tour was described by a Lee County commissioner as “just looking” and emphasized that no negotiations are being held with the Nationals.

So what’s up?

Baseball organizations always keep an eye on what other teams are doing, as they might see an idea they like and incorporate it themselves.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Fort Myers is hardly state of the art, and it’s a turnoff to have practice fields so far away. Perhaps Lee County can build new practices adjacent to their facility; I’m not familiar with the complex.

The Nats’ lease of Space Coast Stadium runs through the end of 2017, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t try to find a way to break the lease, or simply buy their way out of the balance.

Major league organizations play hardball when it comes to spring training facility upgrades. They’ll play towns against each other, hoping to extort the best deal possible from taxpayers’ elected representatives.

The Chicago Cubs are the most recent example. The Cubs have been in Mesa, Arizona for 32 years, and HoHoKam Park for the last 14. But the Cubs have floated the idea of moving to Naples, Florida after their HoHoKam lease expires this year. Politicians trying to keep the team in Mesa have floated the idea of a Cubs Tax in which all patrons of Arizona spring training games would pay a fee on their tickets to pay for HoHoKam improvements.

Analysts have questioned whether the presence of major league organizations provides long-term financial benefits to a community more than other potential uses. A stadium doesn’t provide property tax revenue if it’s owned by the municipality, for example. Most jobs are temporary or part-time — ushers, vendors, and ticket-takers. Might a shopping mall or an industrial complex provide more jobs and revenue to a community in the long run? Possibly. But most politicians find it easier to promote the ego boost of big league ball with their town in the byline instead of a mall.

The Nationals could assuage local concerns here in Brevard County simply by explaining the reason for the Fort Myers tour. They’ve chosen to remain silent.

It could simply be no more than a machination to extort more taxpayer-funded improvements at the Space Coast Stadium complex, hoping to frighten Brevard County elected officials into thinking they’ll leave if they don’t get some shiny new toy. If Brevard says no, might they try to leave? Possibly.

I doubt many people in the Space Coast would miss the Nationals, but I do worry about what happens to the Manatees.

If the Nats leave, they would lease the stadium directly from Brevard County. With a capacity of 8,000, Space Coast Stadium is way too big for the Manatees. A park with a capacity of about 2,500 would better suit their needs.

I haven’t seen the numbers, so this is just my speculation, but if the Nats leave I have to wonder if Space Coast Stadium becomes too expensive for the County to keep and they demolish it to sell off the land. That would leave the Manatees homeless, unless the County builds them a new park elsewhere.

That could create a scenario where the Manatees’ franchise could simply leave town and move elsewhere in Florida.

Brevard County has a rich professional baseball history going back to the Cocoa Fliers in 1941. Cocoa Expo Stadium began life as Cocoa Colt Stadium in 1964, the spring training home for the Houston Astros (born Colt .45s). But the Astros left for Kissimmee in 1985, and if it wasn’t for the National League adding the Florida Marlins in 1993 we wouldn’t have either Space Coast Stadium or the Manatees, a new Florida State League franchise added as the Marlins’ Advanced Class-A affiliate.

Hopefully elected officials in Brevard County start thinking ahead about what they’ll do should the day come when the Nationals issue their threat to build a cutting-edge facility for them or else. My preference would be to see the County build a new park for the Manatees, perhaps financed by selling off the land where Space Coast Stadium currently stands. But we’re not at that point yet.

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