Shared from the 1/14/2017 Palm Beach Post eEdition


Braves again eye area for stadium

Questions remain on cost, funding of facility in John Prince Park.

As the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals prepare to open their $148 million spring training facility in West Palm Beach, business and government leaders in central Palm Beach County are buzzing with optimism over a new plan for an Atlanta Braves spring training complex in John Prince Park near Lake Worth.

A Braves representative showed area municipal and business leaders in December a rendering of a single-team spring training facility on 70 acres in the southwest corner of the park.

The rendering, made by architects for the Braves with input from Palm Beach County staff, shows a 9,500-seat stadium with six practice fields immediately east of Congress Avenue, just south of Sixth Avenue South and north of the Lantana airport, according to several people who saw the plan.

And it would have fewer impacts on existing public amenities than an earlier proposal that drew opposition from nearby residents, considered in 2014 for the north end of the park along Lake Worth Road.

But the big questions of how much the latest proposal will cost and who will pay apparently were not discussed in any detail during a presentation in December at Palm Beach State College, which is just north of the site.

County Administrator Verdenia Baker on Friday said tourism-tax revenue, which helped pay for the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, will not be available for a Braves complex.

Baker also ruled out the use of money from the 1-cent sales tax approved by voters in November. Any county contribution, she said, would be limited to property tax revenue. Cities around the site also could be asked to contribute.

As of Friday, the Braves plan was not on the agenda for the commission’s next regular meeting Feb. 7.

The Braves “have been doing their own thing and their own planning,” Baker said. “They did ask for staff’s input on ‘What if we did this? Would that work?’ etc. Our park staff has been giving them input so whatever plans they come up with they’re going to have minimal to no impact if the board decides (to proceed). We gave them input so they would know what we are going to vehemently object to if this thing moves forward.”

Lake Worth City Manager Michael Bornstein said the Braves plan was discussed during a meeting he attended Monday with other local city leaders and County Commissioner Dave Kerner, one of two commissioners who took office in November.

Kerner, whose district includes John Prince Park, said he met with at least three Braves representatives in early November.

“While I recognize the excitement that surrounds this opportunity, I have to be a good steward of public funds and balance the competing interests of my district,” he said Friday in an email to The Palm Beach Post.

“At this time, I have not been presented with a financing plan that gives me confidence. I recognize the extreme need this area of the county has, and the synergy this project may have with the surrounding cities and the state college. As the district commissioner for where this project is targeted, I am open to continuing the conversation with all the interested parties, but am categorically unwilling to commit a disproportionate share of county public funds.”

Mack Bernard, the other new county commissioner, said he likes the idea of adding a fifth Major League Baseball team to the county’s spring training roster but he might not support the use of property tax money.

“I am open to discussing it, so I am not a ‘no,’” said Bernard, who said he met with two Braves representatives in the weeks after was elected and before he took office.

“We can always be creative and see what staff can come up with and see if we can become a partner with the Atlanta Braves. I am not going to shoot it down. Let’s get a proposal and see what the Braves are offering.”

The Braves also are considering Sarasota County for an estimated $100 million complex.

Tom McNicholas, the Braves’ local lobbyist who gave the presentation to local leaders in December, said he could not comment on the latest proposal for John Prince Park. John Schuerholz, the Braves’ vice chairman, could not be reached.

Business leaders around the Lake Worth corridor said they hope the county can act quickly and strike a deal with the Braves, who still have a loyal fan base after training from 1963 to 1997 at the old West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium.

The latest proposal would call for moving the John Prince Golf Learning Center, a driving range with lights on the north end of the site. It also would add walking paths, gazebos and other public amenities in the parts of the park immediately around the baseball complex, Bedford said.

“This is an opportunity that could benefit this corridor. My concern is if we don’t act on it soon, the Braves are going to go elsewhere,” said Mary Lou Bedford, chief executive officer for the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, who attended the presentation in December.

“This isn’t just about baseball. This is about that area. This would be the biggest economic driver the greater Lake Worth area has experienced thus far.”

Bornstein said the plan also calls for multipurpose fields for the public, similar to the fields on the south side of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches — fields that would also be used as parking during spring training games.

“The layout they’ve come up with now is, I think, a great concept that is an enhancement to the park,” he said. “It doesn’t go into the areas along the water or the east trails. It’s a marked improvement from the earlier version.”

The Braves, who have trained at Disney’s Wide World of Sports near Orlando since 1998, want to move into a new facility by 2019.

Brave s offic ials have been in discussions with the county off and on since March 2015.

“Time is of the essence,” Bornstein said. “They’re back again and I don’t think they’re going to wait another year. From what I understand, they need to pull the trigger.”

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