Nationals Play Chess with Brevard County

Florida Today baseball writer Mark DeCotis broke the story on August 6 that the Washington Nationals have contacted Osceola County about moving their spring training complex to Kissimmee.

If the Nats move, the irony is that it would be the second time Brevard County has lost a major league club to Kissimmee. The Astros left Cocoa Expo Stadium in 1984 for Kissimmee.

I wrote on April 3 about Florida Today reporting that Nationals officials were touring a facility in Ft. Myers that’s currently used by the Boston Red Sox.

Nationals officials have not commented publicly on their dalliances with Osceola and Lee Counties, but a letter obtained by DeCotis made it clear the Nationals were interested in exploring a move to Kissimmee.

Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten sent a letter to Osceola County officials last month expressing interest in possibly moving the team’s spring training home from Viera to Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee.

Kasten sent the letter to Osceola County Manager Don Fisher. In the correspondence dated July 26, Kasten wrote to Fisher: “It was nice speaking to you last Thursday and it was very interesting hearing about the potential for a new spring training complex in Osceola County.

“I would certainly be interested in meeting with you and hearing more about your plans in greater detail, as we consider our own future spring training plans. In the event Osceola County is interested in moving forward, please let me know.”

If you’re of a conspiratorial bent, it would be reasonable to assume that Kasten knew full well any written correspondence he sent to Osceola would be a public document and potentially leaked.

The July 26 letter might have been intended to pressure Brevard officials into approving improvements for Space Coast Stadium. Florida Today reported on August 4 that county commissioners approved $316,000 in improvements for 2011. The letter was sent a week before the Brevard vote.

The Nationals’ lease runs through December 31, 2017, so if they leave “the club must reimburse the county for Space Coast Stadium construction-bond payments until another team moves in, said Shannon Wilson, assistant county attorney.”

As for Lee County, the Ft. Myers News-Press reported on August 6 that “the county remains interested in the Nationals.”

Jeff Mielke, executive director of the Lee County Sports Authority, wasn’t surprised to hear the Nationals are showing interest elsewhere.

“We all thought the Nationals would shop around,” Mielke said.

He believes it’s likely that the Nationals could leave Florida’s east coast. Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Vero Beach all had spring training teams but no longer do. That makes for few convenient road trips for the Nationals.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that the east coast is getting a little tougher,” Mielke said.

The Nationals are hardly the only major league team to play hardball with a municipal landlord.

Most recently, the Chicago Cubs played Mesa, Arizona against Naples, Florida, hoping to extort stadium improvements out of Mesa. But Naples withdrew in July, leaving the Cubs without their leverage.

In November 2003, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno threatened to move the team’s spring training complex from Tempe, Arizona across the Phoenix valley to Goodyear, where Moreno was a partner in a residential and commercial development. The extortion worked, as one year later Tempe agreed to finance $20 million in stadium improvements, including a new minor league complex.

The local financial benefits are questionable for a municipality to host a major league baseball spring training.

Studies will often cite gross revenue and other indirect impacts. One example is this 1999 study by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council which concluded that the “Total impact of the nine teams on Florida’s economy is $227 million.”

But the study failed to look at the costs accrued by cities, counties and the State of Florida to build and maintain publicly owned facilities. Nor did they consider alternate uses of public land that might generate more revenue. Public land is not subject to property tax, while private land is.

Neither do these studies mention that most of these facilities include a minor league complex that will operate almost year-around, with games played from March through October. No revenue is generated from those games, as no admission or parking fee is charged, but municipal landlords are responsible for maintenance and rehabilitation costs unless otherwise specified in the lease.

Should the Nationals threaten to leave, Brevard County should conduct a thorough economic study that weighs these other options. In the long run, would the county receive more revenue from another land use at Space Coast Stadium? One scenario might be to raze the ballpark, and sell the land for residential and commerical use. The minor league complex might be preserved for use by amateur adult and youth sports.

The orphan in most of these scenarios would be the Brevard County Manatees of the Florida State League. The Manatees are a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate, not a Nationals affiliate. Space Coast Stadium’s 8,000-seat capacity is way too much for the Manatees’ needs. The Manatees are averaging about 1,300 per game in 2010; even in their best years, they rarely average more than 2,000.

The Manatees would be best served by construction of a 2,500-seat capacity stadium. An excellent location, in my opinion, would be the current site of Cocoa Expo at the I-95 and the 520 highway. But either the county would have to buy the site, or investors would, and neither scenario seems likely right now. So if the Nationals leave, it might mean the eventual departure of the Manatees franchise to elsewhere in Florida.

I’ve always felt that baseball teams should pay for their own facilities, but there seems to be an endless supply of municipalities willing to subsidize a multi-billion dollar industry for ego or pride. Many taxpayers think these facilities are paid by the same funds that pay for police and fire, but that’s simply not true. The typical scheme is the creation of a special enterprise fund that raises money from a local hotel tax, a slice of ticket sales and parking fees, perhaps state economic development funds. But regardless of the funding source, I wish more municipalities would tell these billionaires to stick it.

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