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Resident Unease Over Ball Park May Drive Its Developers Elsewhere

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Copyright 2013 The Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

Palm Beach Post (Florida)
November 11, 2013 Monday
FINAL EDITION
A SECTION; Pg. 1A
1052 words
West Palm flirts with stadium suggestion;
Rancor in Gardens could attract other suitors.
By Joe Capozzi and Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
WEST PALM BEACH

Bruce Lewis says he's not trying to create "a turf war" between Palm Beach Gardens and West Palm Beach.

But knowing that neighborhoods in Palm Beach Gardens were pushing back at a plan to build a two-team baseball complex there, Lewis decided to pay a visit Wednesday to the mayor of West Palm Beach.

Lewis, a West Palm Beach business consultant, offered up an idea: Bring a big-league diamond back to the city.

Intriguing, Lewis says Mayor Jeri Muoio told him. West Palm Beach spokesman Elliot Cohen confirmed Lewis' meeting with Muoio but said Friday it hasn't gone beyond the "sure, good idea" stage.

And it probably won't happen, because the Houston Astros aren't interested. Giles Kibbe, the team's general counsel, said Friday that the Astros are focusing on the 117-acre site off Central Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens and not looking at West Palm Beach or anywhere else.

The Astros did consider the West Palm Beach tract, estimated at 15 acres, more than a year ago, when they first explored sites in Palm Beach County, but backed out because it was too small.

But Kibbe said West Palm Beach could use it to lure a fifth team to the area if the Astros and Toronto Blue Jays move to Palm Beach Gardens. The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals train in Jupiter.

The complex would have spanned four blocks in an economically sluggish residential, commercial and government neighborhood, just north of the West Palm Beach police station and the federal courthouse, from the county court complex to Tamarind Avenue.

Lewis conceded his vision is a long shot. The available property might hold a stadium, but won't have room for practice facilities. And the Astros' Kibbe said it has many parcels with many owners, leading to a complicated acquisition.

Lewis has been on the board of the city's Downtown Development Authority for a dozen years (he and the DDA stressed Friday that he was not speaking for the agency ). He's also a public relations executive, specializing in large-sale public and private development projects.

A West Palm Beach resident, he also has a vested interest in the site, because one of his clients is Florida Public Utilities. That firm is one of the largest property owners in the area that was explored to be a complex. And some of the property it would be unloading has contaminated soil and has been designated a "brownfield." That means someone would have to clean it up.

Lewis said he'd run the idea past Martin Perry, attorney for Old Palm, one of at least three Palm Beach Gardens neighborhoods fighting the complex there.

"I said, 'We have something in common. You need some relief up there, and we'd like to have a baseball stadium down here.'"

But Perry told Lewis he was a step ahead of him. He'd already broached the idea with both Muoio and West Palm Beach Commissioner Shanon Materio.

That's when Lewis went to the mayor.

Materio said Perry had discussed the idea with her at a gathering Nov. 1 at a private home to swear in the new chair of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches.

Materio said a stadium complex "would just light the fire to that whole area." But she said it's not the only site the city could offer a team. She cited a city-owned tract that stretches from Military Trail west to Haverhill Road, just south of 45th Street. In August 2012, the city rejected a plan to convert it to a mega-soccer complex with a stadium and hotel.

The 2012 discussions about the baseball stadium came after the Astros contacted developer Michael Masanoff. For years he's been trying to launch a massive "transit village" development of condominiums, hotel rooms and offices in the 6-acre, triangle-shaped "wedge" tract near the train station. The Astros knew Masanoff had worked with the Baltimore Orioles a decade earlier on a failed plan to build a spring training complex on another tract of downtown land farther south.

The Astros' Kibbe said the West Palm Beach option was for just one team. He said it included the possibility of building practice fields near the original spot of West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium, on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard. "From a stadium standpoint I thought it was phenomenal,'' Kibbe said, "but to have practice facilities and the team complex five miles away is not something we were interested in doing.''

Another option was for teams to use the athletic campus Palm Beach Atlantic University is building on more than 80 acres just north of Southern Boulevard and along Interstate 95.

PBAU spokeswoman Becky Peeling said the university didn't pursue the idea because of "the enormous financial investment of more than $7 million in infrastructure, the rapid progress that is being made in completing the school's Rinker Athletic Campus, and the commitment to donors, student athletes and coaches."

West Palm Beach City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell said Friday that Masanoff showed her the configuration designed in 2012 by architect Rick Gonzalez: "He showed a way it could be done, (but) not the feasibility."

After his West Palm Beach flirtation fell through, Astros owner Jim Crane was in contact with the New York Mets as a possible partner. Crane in 2012 toured Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, where the Mets train. Opponents of the Palm Beach Gardens site hope the residential opposition in that city spurs the St. Lucie County Commission to resume courting the Astros.

Baseball teams first started holding spring training in West Palm Beach in 1928, when the St. Louis Browns ran the bases at the old Connie Mack Field, now the parking garage for the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. But it's been absent since the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos left following the 1997 season. The Municipal Stadium site now is a shopping center .

Gonzalez said the new plan could compliment other nearby proposed projects, including All Aboard Florida, the passenger rail service along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

"Wouldn't it be great to have a real urban ballpark in West Palm Beach?" Gonzalez asked.

Lewis said the project could get financial incentives from both the city and its Community Redevelopment Agency.

"It would be a great shot in the arm to have that venue in proximity to that well deserving community," he said. "That's job creation."

jcapozzi@pbpost.com Twitter: @jcapozzipbpost ekleinberg@pbpost.com Twitter: @eliotkpbp

November 13, 2013

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