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Palm Beach Post (Florida)

Spring training complexes shared by two Major League Baseball teams are a trend in Arizona, where 10 of the 15 baseball teams in the Cactus League play in five dual-team facilities, including three that opened over the past five years.

Florida has only one -- Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, which opened in 1998.

If the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros can find a way to build a new multimillion-dollar baseball complex to share in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach County would continue to own the distinction of being home to the state's only shared spring training facilities.

"It's definitely the wave of the future. It's really the wave of the present," said Dave Dunne, general manager of Arizona's newest two-team stadium -- Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, which opened in 2011 as the spring home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies.

That wave comes with another -- a significant jump in the price of shared facilities.

Roger Dean Stadium cost $28 million in 1998, Salt River Fields $226 million in 2011.

Roger Dean's cost to the public -- paid for with bonds financed by a county tourist tax on hotel rooms -- doesn't include the millions of dollars in land, roads, sewer and other infrastructure donated or paid for by the developers of the surrounding Abacoa mixed-use community.

But it's still considerably smaller than what the Nationals and Astros are seeking -- estimated to be at least $110 million for a stadium, 12 practice fields and state-of-the-art clubhouses with the latest therapy pools, video rooms and conference halls.

Neither the county nor the teams will disclose a precise cost projection. But whatever the actual facility costs, officials have said there would be "very substantial" costs to remediate land at the 160-acre site south of 45th Street and west of Military Trail because it had been previously used as a landfill.

Still, Arizona's newest shared facilities offer a glimpse of the kind of amenities and features that Palm Beach County and West Palm Beach will be asked to pay for in order to help revitalize Florida's Grapefruit League.

Three teams have left Florida since 2008 -- five since 2003 -- to set up new spring homes in dual-team facilities in Arizona. The Astros and Nationals also each looked around Arizona over the last few years before focusing their negotiations on West Palm Beach.

Arizona's biggest attraction for teams is the fact that all 15 Cactus League teams play in the greater Phoenix area, with just 54 miles separating the two most distant teams. In Florida, especially on the east coast, some stadiums are located hundreds of miles apart and teams often take bus rides of more than two hours to play an opponent.

That would improve if the Astros and Nationals set up camp in West Palm Beach, which is 15 minutes from the Marlins and Cardinals in Jupiter. But the teams probably won't move to West Palm Beach unless they get a dual-team spring training facility at least comparable or better than the newest complexes in Arizona.

"They want state-of-the-art," said Mark Coronado, president of the Cactus League Association, who was involved with the Astros' and Nationals' recent tours of different Arizona ballparks.

"It was nothing about the stadium. They needed clubhouses that were state-of-the-art for rehabbing and training and hydrotherapy. That's what everybody wants. If the clubhouses are not 68,000 square feet, you are not going to compete."

Some of the Cactus League construction costs are paid for through a hotel tax and car rental surcharges distributed by the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority. But considerable money comes from other sources, too.

For example, the city of Glendale paid $200 million to build Camelback Ranch, home of the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, according to the Arizona Republic. The city expects to get some of that money back from the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority.

The Dodgers long had a Grapefruit League identity in Vero Beach with Dodgertown, where they trained from 1949 to 2008.

Now, the team plays in a 13,100-seat stadium that was built 12 feet below the ground to improve sight lines. Aside from a 5-acre lake and river that also helps irrigate 13 fields, the $158 million complex ($121 million for the ballpark and $37 million in off-site improvements) includes an orange grove as a reminder of Dodgertown.

The newest dual-team facility, Salt River Fields, opened three years ago on 140 acres in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community east of Scottsdale.

The Diamondbacks and Rockies each have an 85,000-square-foot clubhouse with fitness rooms and offices, along with six full-size practice fields, which all teams need in spring training to accommodate all their major and minor league players.

The complex has an 11,000-capacity stadium, two lighted soccer fields and a 3-acre man-made lake stocked with 17,000 fish. It spawned development of the Talking Stick Entertainment and Cultural District, which includes a 500-room resort and casino, a 36-hole golf course, butterfly pavilion and shopping center.

The West Palm Beach complex would be paid for with county bed-tax money and $50 million in state money set aside for spring training facilities. Even with that funding, the county expects to fall millions of dollars short.

Whether West Palm Beach or the teams help pay for the difference remains to be seen. The city, county and teams are expected to meet again in the coming weeks to discuss how to pay for the project.

"The plan they have, they are saying, is very upscale, nice. That perhaps is the probably the problem," said County Mayor Priscilla Taylor, who has met with team officials in recent weeks with West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio.

"It will be a hard sell and I think that's what they are probably realizing from input they are getting already from staff," Taylor said.

Last summer, the Nationals asked Osceola County to pay $98 million for a single-team facility in Kissimmee. With financing included, the county would have had to commit about $174 million in tourist-tax dollars from 2014 through 2044. The plan was rejected in August.

Palm Beach County leaders are trying to persuade the Nationals and Astros to reduce their expectations.

"If not, then I guess we might not have baseball," Taylor said. "If they want to be here, I'm sure they realize they will probably have to be negotiable."

But the general manager of Salt River Fields said Palm Beach County leaders should not use Roger Dean Stadium, which opened more than 16 years ago, as a benchmark in their negotiations with the teams.

"Roger Dean Stadium is beautiful, but I compare it to if you bought a luxury car in 1998 and a luxury car in 2014, there are quite a few differences," Dunne said.

Cactus League officials have told public agencies in Arizona that their investments in spring training facilities generate more than $600 million annually for the state's economy.

Grapefruit League officials have touted similar statistics about spring training's economic benefits for Florida. But a recent Palm Beach Post analysis of data from state Office of Economic & Demographic Research showed that Florida metro areas with Grapefruit League facilities saw a smaller five-year increase in March tourism spending than those without -- 15 percent compared with 21 percent.

Still, the Cactus League's president said he would advise West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County to consider the long-term investment that the Nationals and Astros can bring. That includes an economic impact from visitors, media exposure to markets in Washington and Houston and the chance for South Florida to develop into a spring training hub.

"If Palm Beach (County) wants to be a destination, then Palm Beach needs to understand that it's more than the investment. It's the residual return that will bring them that investment in the long run," Coronado said.

jcapozzi@pbpost.com Twitter: @jcapozzipbpost

 

May 27, 2014

 

 
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