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Ex-congressman Mark Foley helping Nationals find spring training home in Palm Beach County

With previous proposals for spring training sites elsewhere in Florida having fallen apart, the Nationals have enlisted the services of a former U.S. congressman and area native Mark Foley to help find a potential spring training home in Palm Beach County. Foley, a former Republican representative from Florida turned lobbyist, and Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner met Thursday with officials from Palm Beach and Lake Worth.

The discussions were preliminary, but county officials are in the process of studying about four or five sites where a spring training facility could be built. Jupiter, located in Palm Beach County, is already home to Roger Dean Stadium, a two-team facility that holds the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, both frequent opponents of the Nationals in the Grapefruit league. Lake Worth and West Palm Beach are possible sites, and there’s been a recent movement to attract a team to Boca Raton.

“It would be great to attract the Nationals,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal Valeche, who is spearheading the county’s spring training efforts. “It obviously depends on how we could work out the deal out. But having a team from a city like Washington would bring more tourists and they’re a great team and franchise.”

Valeche said he met Thursday with Lerner, Foley, Palm Beach County facilities director Audrey Wolf and Arthur Fucillo, an executive vice president at Lerner Enterprises. Lake Worth City Manager Michael Bornstein, whose city has been interested in attracting a team to park area near Palm Beach State College, said he also met with Foley and Lerner. Funding wasn’t discussed during the meetings, both officials said.

“There weren’t any details being discussed but we are interested in being the Nationals’ host city if possible to bring them to the county,” Bornstein said.

The meetings were first reported by the Palm Beach Post. Only four teams base spring training on the east coast of Florida — the Cardinals, Marlins, Mets and Nationals — and, according to officials, the Cardinals’ and Marlins’ lease allows them to leave if that number of teams drops below four. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Marlins have the option to leave Roger Dean Stadium after 2017 if there aren’t four teams within close proximity despite the lease running through 2027.

Thus, it is in Palm Beach County’s interest to attract another team and potentially two more.  The Astros and Blue Jays were interested in moving to Palm Beach Gardens but that proposal stalled recently when residents were concerned about the neighborhood and traffic impact. Palm Beach County is among the wealthiest counties in Florida and third largest in terms of population.

Foley and Lerner knew each other as they had crossed paths on a real estate deal in the past. The Nationals officially enlisted Foley as a lobbyist in January, representing Washington Nationals Spring Training LLC. Foley grew up in Lake Worth and served as a city official there before rising through the state legislature to Congress in 1995. He served until 2006 when he resigned following allegations of inappropriate communication with an underage male former Congressional page.

The Nationals have made no secret about their interest in leaving Viera, where bus rides to the closest Grapefruit League opponent are at least 75 minutes. The Nationals’ lease for Space Coast Stadium doesn’t expire until 2017, but they asked Brevard County officials last May to break their lease after the 2014 season. Brevard County countered last summer by offering the Nationals $29 million in upgrades to Space Coast Stadium, a deal that calls for a new 20-year lease and could potentially accommodate a second team. But Brevard Commissioner Rob Fisher said this week that the county hasn’t heard back from the Nationals.

A proposal to build the Nationals a new $98 million spring training facility in Kissimmee, about 20 miles south of Orlando, fell apart when Osceola County officials rejected it in August over concerns over the amount of public funding.