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Players on the Puerto Rico national baseball team play a game to test their reflexes during a practice at the City of Palms Sports Complex on Monday 3/4/2013.
Players on the Puerto Rico national baseball team play a game to test their reflexes during a practice at the City of Palms Sports Complex on Monday 3/4/2013.

Note to readers

This is the second day of stories looking at the future of City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, which has been vacant since 2011 when the Boston Red Sox moved to their new spring home, JetBlue Park.

City of Palms: some Options

• Bring in another major league team
• Turn into soccer fields
• Attract more amateur baseball events
• Tear it down

news-press.com/dodgertown

Day 1 of series: Vero Beach finds a way economically to deal with the loss of the Los Angeles Dodgers for spring training.
Video: Report on Vero Beach’s recovery.
Database: Compare the data between the counites of Lee and Indian River, where Vero Beach is located.
Galleries: See photos of the Vero Beach Sports Village, Dodgertown and Fort Myers’ City of Palms Park through the years and of the Puerto Rican national team preparing for the World Baseball Classic at City of Palms Park.

More

Special page: Spring training, economic data and more

Video: Vero Beach moves on following Dodgers' departure

Photos: Vero Beach Sports Village | Historic Dodgertown | City of Palms Park through the years

With a $222 million debt for two major league baseball teams and their stadiums, Lee County commissioners say they’re looking for a less expensive sport for City of Palms Park.

After a two-year vacancy, commission Chairman Cecil Pendergrass said Lee needs to unload the $1.3 million it costs each year to maintain City of Palms amid a $30 million budget deficit.

“I wish we could just give the facility to someone and they could operate it,” Pendergrass said. “That would be the best thing for the county.”

Officials in St. Petersburg did just that, after the Tampa Bay Rays left Al Lang Field in 2008, said managing director of St. Petersburg‘s City Development Joe Zeoli.

Life after spring training has been fruitful for the city, its stadium and the private organization that runs it, Zeoli said. Before retiring from spring ball, the field hosted several ballclubs dating back to its 1947 opening and 1977 makeover.

In exchange for a $100,000 a year contribution from St. Petersburg, today a nonprofit group fills the park’s roster with events that include NCAA Division 1A baseball in the spring and Major League Soccer games that run through summer and fall.

“Six months of soccer usage is a great thing,” Zeoli said. “We love to have them and they certainly do make an economic impact.”

(Page 2 of 3)

Landscape designer and Fort Myers resident Joe Beck believes commissioners should turn City of Palms into a soccer venue — an idea he’s proposed to some of them.

With a growing Hispanic population, Beck said pro soccer would draw a local fan base, in addition to attracting soccer hungry tourists from across Southwest Florida.

“We have baseball, but soccer is a far more popular youth sport and there’s no venue for professional teams here,” Beck said.

Euro no

Pendergrass and Commissioner Larry Kiker said Lee should do all it can to find a different sport to fill the stands at City of Palms.

But Lee officials charged with finding a tenant for City of Palms Park highlighted the potential pitfalls of professional soccer earlier this month.

After talking to people who had European soccer contacts, Sports Authority Director Jeff Mielke expressed his doubts to commissioners at a management and planning meeting.

“They feel that they are a brand,” Mielke told commissioners of pro European soccer teams. “That you pay their flights; you pay their board. They’ll come in; they’ll do their training; they’ll do so some exhibition games that will generate some tourism and economic impact and then they go away.”

County officials have limited their efforts to European teams, which play the most popular and profitable sport on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

By comparison, St. Petersburg hosts Major League Soccer’s Rowdies – a team in the less-popular United States’ pro-league. Officials in Arizona cities also have turned to Major League Soccer, filling stadiums left vacant by baseball’s spring training.

Mielke also told commissioners it will cost $100,000 to convert the baseball diamond to a soccer field and back to baseball diamond. Beck, a landscape architect by trade, said he believes filling the dirt infield and warning track with turf could be accomplished for less.

Baseball fans

Dismissing soccer as too pricey, Mielke and Parks Director and interim Assistant County Manager Dave Harner said bringing back a baseball club to City of Palms remains their priority.

(Page 3 of 3)

“We are looking to find a major league team to call City of Palms Park home,” Harner said. “The county’s focus now is to find the best way to use City of Palms Park for its intended purpose, which is baseball. “Should that not happen, we’ll pursue other options.”

Lee would either have to take more money from tourist taxes that pay for beach projects and marketing or stick property owners with a bigger bill to cover the $36.6 million cost of stadium upgrades the Washington Nationals demanded, Assistant County Manager and Budget Director Pete Winton has told commissioners.

Harner noted Lee continues its talks with the Nationals.

Commissioner Tammy Hall recommended ending those negotiations, which went on for a couple of years before she was told about the $36.6 million sticking point last month.

“Unless we go to reserves or some other form of financing, I don’t see how we can entertain the Nationals and we need to cut them loose at some point in time,” Hall said, before her advice went unheeded and commissioners decided to extend talks with the team at a management and planning meeting last month.

Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to make available up to $5 million a year in state funds for spring training stadiums earlier this month inspired hope in county officials.

But Lee would need about half those statewide dollars to repay a $36 million debt. Assuming a straight payment plan, Lee would have to come up with $2.2 million a year in installments, Winton has told commissioners.

In hopes of finding money, county officials looked to Fort Myers.

The city has $2.3 million in mortgage payments this year on City of Palms – a $12.9 million debt in total that won’t be paid off for another decade.

A private-partner also would be needed, Winton said.

But the Nationals aren’t about to pony up cash for improvements, even if Lee gave them the stadium rent-free, County Manager Doug Meurer told commissioners.

Amateur baseball events are another option.

Clearwater officials rid themselves of Jack Russell Memorial Stadium’s operating costs after the Phillies left in 2003 by bringing in a private company that hosts clinics and tournaments, according to documents.

City of Palms was put to use for 73 days last year by amateur baseball and other activities. But the income from those bookings did little to defray the stadium’s $1.3 million operating costs, according to officials and county documents.

Team Puerto Rico used the stadium to practice earlier this month for the World Baseball Classic. County officials offered the stadium free of charge. Harner said the two days of practice didn’t cost the county money. The county also will let the Minnesota Twins hold practices at the field this year.

Drastic option?

The most obvious solution for ridding Lee of the $1.3 million price tag, however, would be for officials to cut their losses and raze the stadium, said Philip Porter, a University of South Florida economics professor who has researched the economic impact of professional sports.

“I always like the expression, ‘When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging,’” Porter said.

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