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West Palm Beach mayor clears path for new Nationals’ training facility

(Jonathan Newton/WP)

West Palm Beach will negotiate a land swap with Palm Beach County for 160 acres of  land targeted for a joint training facility for the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, Mayor Jeri Muoio announced Monday, smoothing the path toward a new spring training home for the Nationals. The announcement represents a reversal on the part of the city, which previously had refused to negotiate such a swap.

“We have an unexpected window of opportunity,” Muoio said in a news conference. “We already know the county remains interested in our site. We know the teams like the [160-acre site]. I remain committed to ensuring the interests of our residents are protected, but I am equally excited about the benefits that would come with having spring training in our city.”

The city had entered into exclusive negotiating rights with developers for the site, and a deal with the county for the land therefore seemed unlikely. West Palm Beach and those developers have since agreed not to pursue the project, according to the city’s Web site, creating that “opportunity” for new development proposals.

In October, the county approved $108 million in public funds for what the teams identify as a $135 million-dollar project, pending the availability of an acceptable site. Until Monday, that site was a substantial sticking point, as the teams’ surveys identified that 160-acre spot in West Palm Beach– known as the Haverhill Site — as the most suitable location. With the city unwilling to negotiate a land swap, the County looked like it might be unable to secure the site necessary to turn funding into a facility.

But Monday’s decision clears the way for a deal to materialize. Palm Beach County Administrator Bob Weisman told the Palm Beach Post completing a deal could take 90 days, and that talks begin next week.

“If successful in securing the property, the teams anticipate immediate commencement of the design process and the playing of the Spring Training at the new facility in 2017,” the Nationals said Monday.

Palm Beach County benefits from a quick consummation of a deal. Just four teams currently train on Florida’s east coast: the Cardinals and Marlins, in Palm Beach County’s Jupiter, the Mets, in Port St. Lucie, and the Nationals, who currently train in Viera. The Cardinals and Marlins share Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, where their lease allows them to leave if the number of teams training in close proximity drops below four. Keeping the Nationals nearby and attracting the Astros from Kissimmee, then, would stabilize the situation.

The Nationals and Astros have targeted 2017 for the first spring training in West Palm Beach, as Washington’s lease at Space Coast Stadium expires that year.

“The Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros are grateful to the City of West Palm Beach for their willingness to open negotiations with Palm Beach County to secure a spring training facility site,” the Nationals said. “Certainly, Mayor Muoio’s statement today sets us on a path to a successful conclusion, and we remain very optimistic.”