In the first necessary step towards creating a “baseball mecca” in northern Palm Beach County, Palm Beach Gardens has asked the county to consider selling the city an 82-acre site where Houston Astros owner Jim Crane wants to move his team for spring training.
“We’re going to evaluate what is legally required for them to pay for the property,’’ County Administrator Bob Weisman said Tuesday. “Using baseball terms, we’re at, like, first base in this process.’’
The city wants to buy the land from the county regardless of whether the site is used as a two-team spring training complex for the Astros and Toronto Blue Jays, Palm Beach Gardens City Manager Ron Ferris said.
But discussions about the proposed $100-million stadium off Central Boulevard call for the city to own the land and help pay for the project with tourism-generated revenue from the county bed tax.
“That needed to be done for this to work and that was always part of the plan,’’ Giles Kibbe, Crane’s general counsel, said when asked about the city’s desire to buy the land and use tourism revenue for the stadium.
“I think it’s clear that the city is focusing on trying to see if this can work and we are as well.’’
The second condition also appears to be attainable. Tourist Development Council Executive Director Glenn Jergensen said there is enough money in bed-tax reserves to pay the debt-service on bonds for a Gardens stadium until the end of 2016, when about $2.05 million a year currently going to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter will become available.
“Everything is moving along as planned,” said Jergensen said.
The Astros would share the proposed site with the Toronto Blue Jays, giving Palm Beach County four teams within a 3-mile drive along Central Boulevard. The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals share Roger Dean Stadium.
“We’re going to try to acquire (the land) regardless of the stadium,” Palm Beach Gardens Councilman David Levy said. “It would be important for the stadium, but if the stadium doesn’t happen, we could still use it for recreation fields. Field demand has really gone up.”
Levy noted that substantial sums of money are needed to build a spring training stadium and that the city does not plan to spend city taxpayer money on it.
“The stadium, to me, is a long way from being done. So I wouldn’t say we’re buying it for the stadium,’’ Levy said.
The city has previously discussed buying the county land, which is near the city’s tennis center, but was unable to do so following the housing bust that reduced property values and city revenue.
But city representatives in recent weeks have been making presentations about the proposed baseball project to private business groups, including the Business Forum and the Northern Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce.
People who have attended those presentations describe a preliminary sketch showing the proposed stadium on the far east side of the 82-acre tract. It would be adjacent to Interstate 95, just north of the city’s tennis center. Practice fields for the teams would be built west of the stadium with green space for parking west of the practice fields.
“If it comes true, it would create a baseball mecca for Palm Beach County,’’ said George Linley, executive director of the Palm Beach County Sports Commission.
“If you have another two-team complex in Palm Beach County, that would be quite the spring training epicenter. It brings benefits to more than just Palm Beach County. It has a regional and state effect.’’
First, though, the county commission has to agree to sell the land. The county purchased it for $3.1 million in 2000 with money from a $25 million bond issue approved by voters in 1999 for parks, recreation and cultural projects.
County officials are working on appraisal of the land, which is valued by the property appraiser at $2.7 million.
County attorneys also want to make sure a proposed sale falls within IRS regulations since the land was bought with tax-exempt bonds.
“That land was purchased with bond money. We’ve got to be very scrupulous about how we dispose of it, if we dispose of it, and at what price. There are some issues there,’’ said County Commissioner Hal Valeche.
If the county agrees to sell the land, the next issue is how to pay for it.
The exact price tag is unknown, but the complex is estimated to cost $100 million. The city is counting on $50 million in state money earmarked for spring training facilities in Florida.
The city hopes to get the other half from county tourism tax dollars. The debt service on the facility would probably be $2.5 to $2.6 million, an amount that county officials believe can be covered by bed tax dollars currently going to the Roger Dean Stadium debt service. That’s because county property values have increased since the Roger Dean bonds were issued and the half-cent tax rate is expected to produce more tax income now.
Palm Beach Gardens would be responsible for annual operations and any shortfalls in the construction price.
Valeche said he doesn’t want the county to “get too formal” on the project until the city addresses any concerns of residents who live near the site, which is near the Shady Lakes and Bent Tree neighborhoods.
“I hope the Gardens is planning to go out and speak to the neighbors – and I’m sure they are — about this at some point and I hope it happens soon. It’s going to be a big change for that neighborhood,” Valeche said.