Nationals’ talks with Osceola County hit a snag


Viera, Fla. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The Nationals’ talks with Osceola County over a planned new $98 million spring training facility hit a major hurdle this week when county officials voted to delay a vote to approve the two-team project, with principal owner Mark Lerner in attendance.

The Nationals and Osceola County had been in secret talks since last fall over a new spring training complex to be constructed in Kissimmee, about 20 miles south of Orlando, on an empty plot of land near an existing spring training facility, Heritage Park, which now houses the Houston Astros. Last week, the Osceola County Tourist Development Council last week voted 4-2 to support the project.

But when the project came to county commission on Monday, county officials expressed reservations about paying for a large portion of the project with revenue from the county’s hotel room tax in addition to state incentives. Local business leaders also expressed concerns about the project. The commissioners voted unanimously to delay a vote on the proposal to Aug. 19 to afford the public more time to evaluate the project, but some commissioners indicated a month perhaps wouldn’t change their views.

The Nationals have known only Space Coast Stadium in Viera as their spring training headquarters, but they have wanted to move out of that relatively remote location for years. In late May, the Nationals asked that their lease with Brevard County be amended so they could leave by Nov. 1, 2014. The lease expires on Dec. 31, 2017.

The Kissimmee proposal calls for a second major league team, but it appears the chances of landing a team to share the facility took a hit when the Astros announced plans to share a complex in Palm Beach Gardens with the Toronto Blue Jays, according to the Houston Chronicle.

As the Astros made their intentions to leave Heritage Park clear over months, Osceola County officials reached out to the five teams that had expiring spring training and the Nationals were one of the ones who had expressed a public desire to relocate, according to county documents. The Nationals would be allowed to design the spring training complex, which called for a two-team facility that included a 8,600-seat stadium, two major league practices fields, major and minor league clubhouses, and eight minor league fields.

Under the proposal, the Nationals would pay a yearly lease of $500,000, which would increase to $580,000 over time, during the 30-year lease. The Nationals would also provide the county a “promotional package” estimated to be worth $650,000 a year which includes television advertisements, signs at Nationals Park and other incentives to promote the county. The Nationals would also help provide bonds and insurance.

“We’re under tight time constraints,” said Arthur N. Fuccillo, an executive vice president at Lerner Enterprises. “Could you imagine me starting this process someplace else and getting to the same end when I have to be out of a place by a certain date? I can’t do that. So let me just indicate that I’m in the bottom of the ninth, actually in the top of ninth, I thought I was winning. I’m in the ninth inning. And we have to be efficient. We owe it to you and the citizens here. We owe to our fans, our investors and the Lerner family. And speaking from the heart, I don’t know what 30 days does. I really don’t.”

Lerner said, according to the Orlando Sentinel:  “The Washington Nationals are optimistic that we are a step closer to bringing Osceola County a one-of-a-kind, family-friendly spring-training and fan-experience facility. We will continue to work together with Osceola County toward the common goal of making this the best spring-training facility in Major League Baseball.”

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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