The Washington Post

Little clarity on Nationals’ spring training future

Viera, Fla. in 2011. (Jonathan Newton/WP)

As the Nationals prepare to begin their 10th spring training at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., there is still little clarity on their spring training future. The Nationals, whose desire to move their spring training home out of Viera is well known, asked Brevard County last May to break their lease for Space Coast Stadium after the 2014 season, three years before the agreement expires. While Brevard County officials offered the Nationals a new deal to remain in Viera, the team’s interest in spring training sites in Kissimmee and Fort Myers have hit roadblocks.

After initially appearing like a promising deal for the Nationals, the proposal for a new $98 million spring training facility in Kissimmee, about 20 miles south of Orlando, felt apart when Osceola County officials rejected it in August over concerns over the amount of public funding. Deals for a more ideal location, empty City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, have now fallen apart twice, including a recent proposal that involved a private developer who county officials thought would help make the project possible.

“It’s not very hopeful,” Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson said in a telephone interview. “I’m not optimistic we can reach a deal.”

Long tired of their long bus rides from Viera to their Grapefruit League opponents, the Nationals initiated discussions with Fort Myers and Lee County on the state’s Gulf Coast about vacant City of Palms Park, which is closer to other spring training opponents. But the county, cash-strapped after spring training deals for the Twins and Red Sox, conceded a year ago that it couldn’t meet the Nationals’ $36.6 million requests for upgrades and renovations the 22-year-old stadium and minor league facilities. Aside from needed upgrades, one of the site’s downsides is that the minor league training facility is more than a mile down the road.

The Fort Myers site re-emerged as an option in August when a private development company, Rockford Construction, joined talks at officials’ requests. County officials hoped that a public-private partnership as part of a mixed-use project that featured the stadium as a centerpiece could be the solution to their financial concerns. But the project hit a major snag last week when officials told Rockford that they didn’t find the developer’s funding proposal feasible.

According to a Jan. 29 letter from Fort Myers City Manager William Mitchell to Paul Roberts, a principal at Rockford, the developer proposed that the city essentially finance the entire cost of the $45 million in refurbishments. By adding that to the existing debt, the city’s total debt on the project would be between $53 million and $56 million, according to the letter.

“Unfortunately, it was not a proposal that we could get to the table on,” Henderson said. “It was disappointing. Where it leaves us, much to my dismay, very much in the ‘early stages’ or ‘no stages.’ ”

This leaves the Nationals with few known options. The team could be privately exploring other options, but their two biggest and most public proposals have stalled. A move to Arizona for spring training seems highly unlikely.

According to a Tampa Bay Times report, Dunedin officials have contacted the Nationals about the spring training facility there, which could become vacant if the Blue Jays leave, but haven’t heard back. (The Blue Jays’ lease there expires in 2017, which coincides with the Nationals’ lease ending in Viera, but the team has threatened to leave — and recently tried but failed with the Astros on a Palm Beach Gardens proposal  — over unhappiness with the facility.) Brevard County officials have tried convincing the Nationals to stay, including offering $29 million in upgrades to Space Coast Stadium last summer, a deal that calls for a new 20-year lease. According to a Florida Today report, county officials haven’t heard back from the Nationals about the offer.

“As a policy, the Washington Nationals do not publicly comment on pending or ongoing business discussions,” the Nationals said in a statement. “We are in the process of finding the best long term options for a Spring Training and player development facility and public comment would be premature and unfair to that process.”

As the Nationals continue to explore further options, Viera remains their most viable spring training site. They will likely remain there for at least one more spring training. And, the Fort Myers deal may be nearly dead.  Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said through a spokeswoman that there are no further discussions or meetings planned regarding the Nationals’ proposal in Fort Myers.

“I like the Nationals,” Henderson said. “I think it’s a great fit. To the average person, it’ s a stunning, intimate stadium. It needs some interior work and to be brought up to speed, things you don’t see. It requires a lot of money to meet the standards of professional 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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James Wagner · February 8, 2014