Gov. Rick Scott is pitching a plan to set aside $5 million a year in the state budget to keep Florida’s Major League Baseball spring training teams from fleeing to Arizona.
Lee County commissioners said Wednesday the money could be a possible funding source to help bring a new team to City of Palms Park in Fort Myers. For nearly a year, the county has been negotiating with the Washington Nationals, who currently train in Brevard County. The Nationals have requested about $36 million in improvements to the vacant stadium.
But Jeff Mielke, executive director of the Lee County Sports Authority, said it is unlikely the state funds could be used to lure a team that already trains in Florida. Instead, Mielke said he believes the money could likely be used only to retain a team in its current community or to lure a team that currently trains in Arizona.
“We needed this for a decade. And when the communities have a dedicated funding source, it makes retention of the teams so much easier,” Mielke said. “But as long as Brevard County shows interest in keeping the (Nationals), no way another community can get funding for the team.
“It’s my opinion this will have no effect on our discussion with the Nationals.”
Scott announced the plan at Lakeland’s Joker Marchant Stadium, where the Detroit Tigers hold spring training. Scott worked the concession stands and managed equipment with the ground crew as part of his “Let’s Get to Work Day.”
Scott said the intent of the proposal is to improve employment conditions.
“My top priority is growing jobs for Florida families —— and spring training has provided families in Florida with
countless job opportunities since the 1800s,” Scott said in a new release. “It’s my job as governor to make sure Florida remains the No. 1 destination for spring training.”
The $5 million would be a recurring fund that could accumulate within the state Department of Economic Opportunity. The funds would only be used for spring training facilities, Scott said.
Few details were immediately available about how the money would be dispensed and what the requirements would be.
Also as part of the proposal, Scott intends to update the state’s public facilities incentive program to cap at $20 million the amount that a club can receive from Florida for upgrades to a publicly-owned facility in exchange for extending an existing lease.
“We must provide teams a predictable landscape with an identified funding stream that allows local governments to make targeted investments to keep teams in their communities,” Scott said in a news release.
Spring training accounts for 1.5 million fans annually and $750 million in economic benefits to the state, Scott said.
Commissioner Tammy Hall called Scott’s proposal, “fantastic” and said it would be a huge boost to tourism.
“Not everyone in Southwest Florida believes that Florida is in direct competition in major league sports,” Hall said. “We need to be competitive, and there’s a huge economic spinoff. It’s also a huge opportunity for youth athletes that play on these fields and can interact with the major league teams.”
David St. Peter, the president of the Minnesota Twins who train in Fort Myers, said he supports the proposal as well, but not for his team.
“You’d have to ask Lee County about their plans, but I’d like to see it utilized for City of Palms and the future there,” he said.
Commissioner Frank Mann said even if Brevard County offers the money to the Nationals as a way to keep them there after their contract ends in 2016, Lee County has other advantages to entice the team.
“We have two other teams right here, a better audience. The Minnesota Twins and the Boston Red Sox draw in nearly double the amount of people the Nationals are drawing in Viera,” Mann said. “We also have a beautiful facility here.”
The Nationals, Mielke said, aren’t the only team the county is looking at to fill City of Palms.
The Milwaukee Brewers - who train in Arizona - have previously expressed interest in Southwest Florida, he said. The Houston Astros and the Toronto Blue Jays, who train in Florida, have contracts that will end soon and could be interested in Lee County.