Palm Beach Gardens rescinds $500k contract for public relations and baseball-boosting

Five months before Palm Beach Gardens officials unveiled a proposal to build a spring training baseball complex near Interstate 95, a marketing firm hired by the city had already sized up potential opponents, including a former Palm Beach County commissioner.

In its pitch to win a six-month, $60,000 marketing and public relations contract with the city, McNicholas & Associates presented city officials with a plan to help make a case that the stadium project “is beneficial to all residents of Palm Beach Gardens and Palm Beach County.”

The Stuart firm was familiar with the stadium proposal, which was given the code name “Project Robin” by the county’s Business Development Board. President Tom McNicholas said Wednesday his company had also worked for the Houston Astros as it searched for stadium sites in Palm Beach County.

McNicholas stressed that his firm stopped working for the Astros in September 2012 — eight months before it won the Palm Beach Gardens contract to provide public relations and marketing services for Project Robin and renovations at the city’s golf course. The firm also stopped doing marketing work for Astros owner Jim Crane’s Palm City golf club in September 2012, he said.

“I do not currently represent any major league baseball teams,” McNicholas said.

But some residents are taking aim at McNicholas’ city contract.

Vito DeFrancesco, a Shady Lakes resident opposed to the project, argued it’s a conflict of interest for McNicholas to be paid by the city after working for the Astros.

“He can’t scrub this man’s back and then go to the next one,’’ DeFrancesco said. “The city of Palm Beach Gardens never needed this guy until they took on a very undesirable thing and tried pounding it on the residents.’’

Jamie Voss, assistant to Palm Beach Gardens City Manager Ron Ferris, said Wednesday that McNicholas’ work with with the Astros did not pose a conflict of interest.

“Actually, McNicholas & Associates is able to offer greater insight and knowledge into baseball, which is beneficial to the city,” Voss wrote in an email to The Palm Beach Post. “Further, McNicholas & Associates has not worked for Mr. Crane, the Astros, or any other Major League Baseball team in over 14 months.”

McNicholas’ firm was in line to win a further, five-year, $500,000 contract with the city for general public relations and communications work. City officials recommended Oct. 29 that that the city council award the firm the contract. Council members were set to vote on the recommendation next month.

But in a notice posted on the city’s website Wednesday, city officials said they were withdrawing the recommendation.

“The city has determined that it is in its best interest to cancel this project and rescind the recommendation,” the notice said.

The rescission notice came a day after DeFrancesco emailed details about McNicholas’ 16-page proposal and the $500,000 contact to many in the community, including The Post.

McNicholas disputed the $500,000 price tag, saying that his firm had yet to negotiate the terms of the contract with city officials. He stressed that the contract had nothing to do with the baseball proposal, and that it instead focused on all of the city’s communication needs.

The stadium proposal has drawn the ire of residents of several nearby communities, who say the complex would bring unwanted noise, light and traffic, as well as security problems.

A large group of residents is expected to attend Thursday’s city council meeting to speak against the proposal. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. and will be held at city hall, 10500 N. Military Trail, Palm Beach Gardens.

Under the city’s proposal, the Houston Astros and the Toronto Blue Jays would use $100 million spring-training complex. It would be built on 117 acres off 117th Court North, between Central Boulevard and Interstate 95. The city owns about 35 acres of that property and needs to buy the rest from the county to compete the project.

The county bought the property for $3.1 million in 2000. The original plan called for a regional park on the property, but the property has remained undeveloped.

In its 16-page presentation on the project, which was given to Palm Beach Gardens officials in May, McNicholas’ firm said the stadium would likely face two main opponents: County Commissioner Karen Marcus and residents living near the 117-acre site proposed for the facility.

The presentation contends that Marcus would likely say that land “was meant for community soccer fields and NOT for professional sports complex.” Residents living in surrounding neighborhoods would complain the stadium “is a waste of taxpayer dollars”and that “increased traffic will destroy our community,” it added.

McNicholas said the document was designed to highlight the tools the city could used to distributed information to its residents, and was not intended to be a marketing plan, he said.

“This was a presentation to Palm Beach Gardens to say, this is how you should be looking at things,” McNicholas said. “You have folks there that care about the community. You have to take all of these things into consideration.”

Marcus said she discussed the project with McNicholas early this year, but did not oppose the stadium.

“What I told him is the history of this property and why this is going to be difficult to do,” Marcus said. “Not that I was opposed to it, not that I was supporting it, only that it was going to be difficult to do,’’ she said.

Marcus said she has repeatedly said that nearby neighborhoods needed to be involved in the plan.

“The only other thing I said to Tom was, ‘You need to go to the neighborhoods first.’’

Marcus was known as a growth-management advocate in her years as a county commissioner. But she said she always has been a big supporter of baseball. She’s a member of the Roger Dean Stadium advisory board, which makes recommendations on the spring home of the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals.

Staff researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.

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