For the past nine years, the Montreal Expos-Washington Nationals franchise has made its spring training home in 8,100-seat Space Coast Stadium in Viera, on the east coast of Florida. But for at least the past two years, the Nationals have sought to move out of the somewhat isolated, 19-year-old stadium, having grown tired of their long bus rides for Grapefruit League games.
The Nationals are interested in City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, a 7,800-seat stadium built in 1992 and left vacant last season by the Boston Red Sox. Nationals officials initiated discussions with Lee County officials this past spring, and the two sides met this summer. But having committed more than $80 million in a bond issue for a new Red Sox stadium and having approved $42.5 million in upgrades to the Minnesota Twins’ facility, Hammond Stadium, the county is limited in what it can offer the Nationals.
Despite the financial constraints, Lee County officials remain optimistic they can still entice the Nationals, who are interested in upgrades to City of Palms Park. Interim county manager Doug Meurer said he contacted Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner after county commissioners approved the Twins’ upgrades Nov. 6, and Lerner remained interested in City of Palms Park.
Meurer said he hopes to hold a meeting soon, possibly in January, with county commissioners and other local officials to discuss what the county can do to lure the Nationals to the west side of the state.
Because of a confidentiality agreement between the county and the team, Meurer said he couldn’t reveal an estimated cost of the Nationals’ renovation requests. But he said needed improvements included upgrades to the rehab facilities, larger training areas, additional practice fields, stadium seat replacement, suite renovations and upgrades to the stadium’s electronic scoreboards. The site’s minor league training facility is more than a mile down the road.
A Nationals spokesman declined to comment.
“We have shown the Nats as much love as we can,” said Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, who added that he has seen the Nationals’ rendering for an upgraded stadium that would cost between $40 million and $50 million. “The county and the city have very limited financial resources at this time to bring the stadium to the state the Nats need and require commensurate with the other professional baseball teams. We have articulated that to them from the get-go.”
The Expos began training at Space Coast Stadium in 2003, and the Nationals remained there when they moved to Washington in 2005. The team’s deal with Brevard County, a lease the Lerner family took over in 2006, runs until 2017. If the Nationals were to break the agreement, they would be obligated to reimburse the county for remaining construction bond payments on the stadium until another team takes it over, according to the contract, along with other potential damages. Brevard County pays about $765,000 per year in bond payments, the final one coming in spring 2013, according to county budget documents.
Lerner said in March 2011 that the Nationals will stay in Viera “at least the next couple years for sure” as they weighed alternatives. The shortest bus trips the Nationals take during Grapefruit League play — to Kissimmee and Lake Buena Vista — require at least an hour and 15 minutes each way. No other team is so distant.
“We do have a problem here,” Lerner said then. “Viera has been wonderful as a town. Viera government has been wonderful. Our problem is basically logistics. Our closest game is 120-mile round trip. We cannot do that. It’s tiring. It messes up our practice schedule. It’s not good for the organization. We have no choice but to look at what our options are.”
One option being considered by the Lee County officials is to charge the Nationals $1 annual rent for the City of Palms Park facility until the county’s tourist tax fund replenishes enough to make major renovations. That would save the Nationals about $5 million in rent over 10 years, according to commissioner Frank Mann, while putting them close to teams such as the Red Sox and Twins, with the Tampa Bay Rays’ and Pittsburgh Pirates’ complexes less than an hour away.
“Now that we’re in a position that the Sox and Twins deals are done, we can get into some pencil-sharpening,” Mann said. “The door is wide open to discuss to any pieces of a potential deal.”
For this season, at least, the Nationals will open camp at Space Coast Stadium in February as the defending National League East champions. Where they will play their spring games the following season remains to be seen.
“They’re a great ballclub and anytime you have someone that in your backyard and community, because it helps put heads in beds and they have a following and people love spring ball,” said Robin Fisher, a Brevard County Commissioner. “And I think they have definitely been an asset to us and we will do what we can to keep them.”