NAPLES — A representative for the groups trying to turn Collier County into a spring training hot-spot said they believe public money is still an option for attracting a team to the area.
But some Collier County officials said the group shouldn’t look to them for financial support when it comes to building a spring training facility.
“With our financial situation being what it is, and tourism being such a substantial part, I can not see — in any way — taking tourism money or raising taxes even a little,” said Collier County Commission Chairwoman Donna Fiala.
Gary Price, a partner in Fifth Avenue Advisors — one of two groups hoping to lure the Chicago Cubs from their Mesa, Ariz., spring training site to Collier County — said Friday there is currently no plan for how a proposed project would be funded.
Price did say the group has not ruled out the possibility of asking commissioners for some public money to help with the project.
That money would not likely come from an increase in property or sales taxes. Instead, Price said he could see a model where money from the county’s tourist tax would go toward the Cubs project.
“It’s the same thing I said at the press conference way back (in October),” Price said when asked about funding sources. “If there’s 300,000 people coming to a baseball game, they could help fund that stadium. We’ll look at any source, private and public.”
The majority of spring training facilities in Florida are funded using some public money, said Nick Gandy, communications director for the Florida Sports Foundation.
Gandy said generally divert money from local taxes to the development of a stadium or spring training facility. A handful of spring training facilities — including Cracker Jack Stadium at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando where the Atlanta Braves play — are funded using private money.
The Cubs current spring training home, Hohokam Stadium at Fitch Park in Mesa, is funded entirely through taxpayer dollars, said Mesa City Manager Christopher Brady.
“The city built the stadium and built the practice fields,” Brady said. “We actually operate it.”
That’s what would continue to happen, Brady said, if the team decided to stay in Mesa.
“We’d be putting up 100 percent of the public funds,” he said. That isn’t necessarily how Collier County players are pitching it, though.
“I don’t know if we need (public money) or if we need to ask for it,” Price said. “In the spirit of transparency, we’re trying to figure out where the revenue streams are that make sense.”
Price said during a press conference earlier this year he saw this project as a public-private partnership. He also said he felt the project could be a beneficiary of tourism taxes, according to an Oct. 29 Naples Daily News report.
Craig Bouchard, vice chairman of Esmark Inc., said in an e-mail Friday his company’s role was “to be a lead investor in the project.” He deferred to Price on all comments regarding public funding.
Commissioner Frank Halas said when he initially spoke with the group he was told they already had $100 million dedicated to the project. He said Friday he was adamantly against using public money for this project.
“That’s a big ‘no’ with 10 exclamations point after it,” he said.
No request for funding has been made, and Price said he didn’t expect to make one anytime soon.
But Collier County Commissioner Fred Coyle said during a meeting Tuesday he had heard the group was looking for a 1 cent increase in the tourist tax.
The tourist tax – commonly known as the bed tax – is a 4 percent tax levied on all rental income received from accommodations rented for six months or less. The tax is levied on things like hotels, resorts, single family dwellings and condominiums that are rented for less than six months.
About 50 percent of the tax goes toward to beaches, inlets and beach parks. Money from the tax is also used to pay for marketing and supports local museums, attractions and events.
Murray Hendel, the vice chairman of the Tourist Development Council, said there were discussions earlier this year about raising the tourist tax from 4 cents to 5 cents, but a subcommittee rejected the idea.
“My subcommittee recommended we not raise the tourist tax because of the economic situation,” he said.
But Hendel, who has been a vocal supporter of spring training, said that if the organization is successful in bringing the Cubs to Collier County “we will consider raising” the tourist tax.
Other commissioners also cast a shadow on such a notion.
“I thought this was going to be a private venture and wouldn’t involve county government,” said Commissioner Jim Coletta. “Surprise, surprise.”
Coletta — along with the majority of commissioners — said he would not support an increase in the tourist tax. He did say, though, he would consider it if the request was put to a voter referendum.
Coyle echoed those comments, but said “before anything happens we need to have an outline of a deal.”
That could still be a long way off. Price has said his team is operating on a 60-day timetable for when they’ll have a presentation ready for the Cubs.
Bouchard said in an e-mail Tuesday that from his discussions with the Cubs he believes “they would like to make a preliminary decision in February.”
“That being said this is a very important decision for their organization, so I believe they will make it when they are ready and not a day before,” he went on to say.
But Brady — who was in Chicago on Friday discussing Mesa’s spring training prospects — said Cubs officials have said they expect to make a decision about spring training in mid-January.
Peter Chase, a Cubs spokesman, said Friday “the club hopes to have a decision within the month of January.”
Collier County Cubs boosters will have a chance to show their support for the team at 3 p.m. Jan. 16. Officials this week announced they have tentatively scheduled a rally for that day at Cambier Park.
There are no other events scheduled that day in the city of Naples, and Dave Lykins, the city’s community services director, said the group should receive its permit in about 10 days.
“It has to be something the community supports and the Cubs support,” Price said. “But it can’t be done without the public’s support.”
Staff writer I.M. Stackel contributed to this report.
Connect with Naples reporter Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster at www.naplesnews.com/staff/jenna_buzzacco