LEE COUNTY — For 19 years, City of Palms Park has been home to thousands of baseball games and millions of Boston Red Sox fans.
When the new JetBlue Park opens in January 2012 as the new home for Red Sox spring training, many in the city remain in the dark as to the future of the team’s old home in Fort Myers.
Tuesday, the fate of the park could be decided when county commissioners meet and discuss a final proposal by the Austin, Texas-based National Swimming Center Corporation to turn the old ball park into a modern aquatic arena — an $18.2 million, three-phase project the corporation says won’t cost the county a single penny.
“We have created a phasing approach that, to the best of our knowledge, meets all of the financial concerns for Lee County government,” Executive Director John McIlhargy said to Lee County Manager Karen Hawes in an April 8 letter. “The three phase approach requires no county financial investment, and the county eliminates the ongoing maintenance, repair and operating costs.”
The final proposal submitted by the National Swimming Center was given to county staff near the end of May — the latest step in the process to secure a potential occupant for City of Palms Park. It consisted of nearly 300 pages that outlined the company’s commitment to the project.
Today, commissioners and staff will have the opportunity to discuss the proposal and decide whether to proceed with negotiations, Chairman Frank Mann said.
“My concern is always, foremost, the financial feasibility of anyone that we would contract to use county equipment or property,” he said. “This would require the county to turn over an asset valued at $20 million to a company to run successfully.”
The proposal given to commissioners has the National Swimming Center Corporation paying the entire $18.2 million to upgrade the existing City of Palms Park, including locker rooms, the sports club, office space, museum space, energy efficiencies, an indoor swim school and aquatic facility additions.
In the letter to Hawes, the company says the upgrades will not affect the ability to convert City of Palms back to a ball stadium, which they will put the money up for if phase one — installing the swimming pools — does not pan out. By instating a performance bond to insure conversion back to a stadium, National Swim Center Corporation would be liable for the $400,000 to $450,000 retrofitting if phase one of the project isn’t successful.
“It’s a no brainer,” said Commissioner Ray Judah. “I’m fully supportive. The salient points underscore how beneficial this proposal is to the community.”
On top of covering the cost to renovate the former Red Sox training stadium, the National Swimming Center Corporation has proposed to pay $100,000 lease payments to the county, eliminating $1.5 million the county is responsible for in overall annual management, maintenance and other general upkeep, Judah said.
Additionally, Judah says the project will provide construction jobs and create an excess of $60 million a year through swim meets and other events held at the center.
The feasibility and financial stability of the National Swimming Center Corporation will be the focus of tomorrow’s meeting, with commissioners and county staff addressing whether the $25 million the company currently has in the bank plus projected revenue will support the project.
“I need to be certain they’re financially feasible and strong enough to do what they’re promising to do, and competent to run the facility without losing money,” Mann said. “They either run it successfully or we end up with a facility back in our lap.”
Lee County currently faces a possible $50 million shortfall in the next budget year, leaving county officials wary to take on any project of which they would be financially liable. A previous version of the swim center’s proposal in August 2010 increased the county’s commitment to $7 million. A month later, commissioners decided the proposal wasn’t in line with the county’s needs, prompting the National Swimming Center to submit a new proposal to the board in April, with the financial burden wholly on the company’s shoulders.
In addition to attracting major swimming events, McIlhargy said in his letter to the county that the swim center will immediately generate $18 million in activity and jobs. Unlike the 19 years the Red Sox spent at City of Palms Park, during which the venue was contractually limited on what could and could not take place, the National Swimming Center will be a year-round venue and “the largest community center in Florida,” McIlhargy wrote.
“Interestingly, the majority of our large events are opposite spring training schedule, insuring that the hospitality businesses continue to see high occupancy pre and post spring training,” McIlhargy said in the letter.
Until Commissioner Frank Mann sees a direct connection between what the National Swimming Center Corporation is telling the board and the money needed for the project, he’ll remain skeptical of the almost too-good-to-be-true swim center.
“Up to this point, I am not yet convinced of the financial stability of the National Swimming Center Corporation, nor of their long-term ability to maintain and operate the facility successfully,” he said. “That’s what I’m hoping will come out of this briefing.”