WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When the Palm Beach County commissioner Priscilla Taylor attended a groundbreaking in November for the spring training baseball complex being built here, her car wound up with two flat tires.
Construction crews had just started clearing thousands of tons of dirt, debris and trees from the 161-acre site, which was a garbage dump for more than a half-century.
Four months later, Taylor returned to see a line of trucks hauling out what was left of the trash; concrete being poured to form walls; and a crane near where home plate will be in a 6,500-seat stadium that, if all goes well, will open in January as the winter home of the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals.
“This land was just out there not being used, so it’s a win-win for Palm Beach County,” said Taylor, whose district covers part of West Palm Beach. “Certainly, other things are happening, but this can help bring in dollars to the county.”
The $148.5 million spring training complex will help rebalance the geographic alignment in Florida, bringing two teams that play in out-of-the-way corners of the state closer to their rivals.
Once the center of spring training, the east coast of Florida saw an exodus of major league teams during the past few decades. Some left for other parts of the state, others to Arizona, where the 15 clubs in the Cactus League are within about an hour’s drive of one another in the Phoenix area.
To date, the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals, which share a spring training complex in Jupiter; the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie; and the Nationals farther north in Viera are the four remaining teams on the Atlantic Coast.
Like the Nationals, the Astros, who have played in Kissimmee in Central Florida since the 1980s, ride two more hours on a bus to get to almost every away game. By sharing a complex in West Palm Beach, the teams would cut their travel time and attract more fans eager to see their team play at home and on the road.
“The best part was the proximity to the Cardinals and Marlins and Palm Beach Airport,” said Giles Kibbe, who has spearheaded the project for the Astros. “We’ll still have some games on the West Coast, but it’s going to be a significant convenience.”
Just as significant, the county and state are paying for the construction of the complex to lure the Astros and the Nationals. Aware that voters would oppose any tax increases to pay for sports facilities, Taylor and other county commissioners dedicated a slice of an existing hotel bed tax to cover the county’s $113 million share of the project, which includes construction and financing. The state committed another $50 million over 25 years.
While these figures pale when compared with the hundreds of millions of dollars that governments lavish on pro teams building stadiums and arenas, critics said that sports facilities rarely generated the economic benefits that their proponents contended.
They also disputed the notion that building stadiums was a zero-sum game, and that land would lie fallow if not used for sports. Lawmakers prefer hotel bed taxes because they are often paid by visitors from out of town. But that money could easily be used for something else, critics said.
“What gets lost is it’s not the cost of the doing nothing with the land, but something else that could be done with it,” said John Zipp, a sociologist at the University of Akron who has studied the economic viability of spring training facilities in Florida. “The taxes could be used for other things, too, like schools. There is no natural law that says bed taxes have to go to stadiums.”
Taylor, though, was convinced that more baseball fans would flock to Palm Beach County to see the Astros and the Nationals, who will each pay an average of $1.4 million a year over 30 years to use the complex. The teams will also cover any cost overruns beyond the original projected construction cost, $135 million.
While the Astros and the Nationals look forward to their new digs, they leave behind empty buildings. After the Astros decamp for West Palm Beach, Osceola County will scramble to make up some of $47 million in revenue that the team generates during spring training. Don Miers, who runs the stadium for the county, which spent $18 million to renovate it in 2003, said he would try to attract youth tournaments and baseball teams from Japan or South Korea and possibly to host a round of the World Baseball Classic.
But “more youth sports isn’t going to replace the $47 million,” he said.
Palm Beach County, which lost the Atlanta Braves in 1997, was happy for the new tenants. But it has been forced to complete the project in 14 months, a schedule that could tighten further if an unexpected event like a hurricane occurs.
“This is a massive project that we are racing to complete in record time,” the Nationals, who declined to make an executive available, said in a statement. “But we plan to be ready to play in 2017; however, the paint may still be wet and some projects may be wrapping up as the first pitch is thrown.”
Evidence of that race was everywhere. About 75 loads of debris are hauled from the site each week, turning mountains of trash as high as 20 feet into land suitable for ball fields. Some concrete retrieved from the dump is being recycled, and hundreds of trees were removed and will be replanted in parks elsewhere in the city. Several of the 12 practice fields have been laid out, and land has been cleared for seven recreational sports fields, five to be used by the county and two by the city.
The beginning of the first-base line, the Nationals’ clubhouse and the right-field wall are taking shape, not far from a machine being used to sort the tires, metal and other garbage being sent to a solid waste site a mile away.
With all that is going on, the Astros and the Nationals may end up with another neighbor. The Braves, who will play at least one more season near Walt Disney World, are also looking to move out of Central Florida. The Braves have spoken with officials in four communities, including Palm Beach and Pinellas counties. According to Tom McNicholas, a lobbyist for the team, the Palm Beach County commissioners may vote as soon as April 5 on whether to begin negotiations to bring the Braves back to the county.
“The most important thing is to find a community that accepts us,” said John Schuerholz, president of the Braves. “The great thing about Florida is you can get projects completed in a shorter period of time.”
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