LEE COUNTY — After months of negotiations and an election where a pro-baseball Lee County Commissioner was voted out of office, the Washington Nationals are still interested in relocating their spring training home to Fort Myers.
But the question remains, can the county afford them?
County Manager Karen Hawes and Assistant County Manager of Public Works Doug Meurer traveled to Washington D.C. this week to meet with the Major League Baseball team’s executives in person. They had a “positive” 4-hour meeting Friday, Meurer said, and the team is still interested in relocating the City of Palms Park, the former spring training home of the Boston Red Sox in downtown Fort Myers.
But the team wants improvements first.
“We’re limited here with what we can afford, “ Meurer said. “We presented where we’re at and what revenue is available, and discussed looking at alternative sources of funding.”
The county spent $80 million to build JetBlue Park, the new Red Sox spring home, and is looking at $45 million in upgrades to the Minnesota Twins’ park.
Meurer wouldn’t comment on a dollar figure for the National’s requested upgrades, but said the improvements are no different than what other teams want. Those improvements include player development facilities, better fitness equipment, better recovery and rehabilitation facilities, more space, an additional practice field downtown and fan enhancements in the stadium.
While Meurer couldn’t provide a timeline, he said “the Nationals desire to have the upgrades in place before starting to play in Fort Myers.”
“They’re very interested in coming to Fort Myers, that was clear to me,” Meurer said. “Because of that, they’re willing to work with us to get the level of upgrades required for City of Palms Park.”
Currently the Nationals hold spring training in Viera, on Florida’s east coast. The team’s contract with Brevard County for Space Coast Stadium runs through 2017, but they will be done paying the bond next year and could leave without a financial penalty.
It’s been estimated that baseball brings in about $25 million in tourism dollars annually in Lee County.
“One of the worst things to have in Lee County is an empty ball field, what we have right now,” Commissioner Frank Mann said. “I’m interested in trying to pull up with another team. It’s the natural thing to do.”
Commissioner Ray Judah, who lost his primary election last month and is leaving his long-held commission seat in November, said the county will do what makes good business sense. It’s unclear if a deal will be reached before a less baseball-friendly commissioner replaces Judah in November.
John Dever, a spokesman for the team, said the Nationals are continuing to search for a spring home.
“Beyond the playing field and our current status with the pennant race, the Washington Nationals primary pursuit remains finding the best long term options for a spring training and player development facility,” Dever wrote in an email.
Meurer plans to meet with each of the commissioners individually over the next few weeks, while the Nationals finalize their wish-list, and determine when they might want to be in Fort Myers.
“When we’re ready, we’ll present to the current board, or a board seated in November,” Meurer said.