West Palm spring-training stadium may hinge on city-county land swap

Palm Beach County Mayor Priscilla Taylor said the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals could present county officials with a new financing plan for a proposed spring training complex as early as this week.

But before the project can proceed, the county and city of West Palm Beach will have to resolve their differences over a proposed land swap involving prime downtown land and 160 acres at Haverhill Road and 45th Street, the site of an old landfill where the Astros and Nationals want to build the complex.

A deal for the teams to move their spring training operations to West Palm Beach has always hinged on the county’s ability to acquire the 160 acres from the city for free.

City officials recently offered the land to the county, but with one condition: The city wants four lots totaling 2½ acres owned by the county on Evernia and Fern streets near the train station in the city’s transit-oriented development district.

The county rejected the offer.

“That’s valuable land downtown either for county development or for it to become part of some development, and we are not prepared to put any general funds into baseball,’’ county Administrator Bob Weisman said Friday.

Taylor said she supports Weisman’s recommendation to reject the swap and doesn’t think it will jeopardize the county’s efforts to acquire the site.

“I don’t know if that is a breaking point. I thought the city had some other things in mind,’’ Taylor said.

But city officials still hope the county will reconsider the offer, which the city first suggested about two months ago.

“Does it make sense that they are not willing to kick in a couple of acres, but they are asking us to give away 160 acres?’’ said city spokesman Elliot Cohen.

“If the county says baseball is such an economic boon and it will be fantastic for the area, then certainly it must be worth giving us a couple of acres of empty parking lot and scrub weeds in our downtown,’’ Cohen said.

According to the county Property Appraiser’s website, the city-owned 160-acre parcel was assessed at $2.39 million in 2013, while the 2½ acres of county-owned land was assessed at $2.37 million.

City officials have said the 160 acres is worth about $12 million based on its development potential. County officials say the county’s four lots, next to parcels owned by billionaire developer Jeff Greene and near a proposed transit-oriented development project, is also worth more because of its development potential.

The city has said that in any baseball deal, it wants the county to own the property because if the city is the owner it would have to pay property taxes to the county and school board.

The county-owned land downtown has “for sale” signs on it because the county is considering potential offers from private companies. But the county has been reluctant to give up downtown property it might eventually need for future expansion.

“It is the county’s position that those properties are required for future county development. They were going to remain in county ownership for future county issues and to make sure we maximize our development potential,” said Audrey Wolf, the county’s facilities director.

The county-owned land also is important to the city because it could be part of the city’s downtown redevelopment efforts, which eventually could net the city more in property taxes.

“We have a proven success record of doing that,’’ Cohen said of downtown redevelopment. “I’m not sure the county has as equal a record in that.’’

Cohen said the city is “certainly in favor of bringing baseball to West Palm Beach, but we’ve got a responsibility to our citizens to make sure that we are not just giving away a huge piece of valuable property without protecting their interests.’’

Taylor said there’s a chance the county could reconsider the land-swap offer, but Weisman didn’t sound like he would recommend it.

“It never had any traction,’’ Weisman said, referring to the initial discussions on the offer. “It never rose to the point of discussion because it wasn’t going to happen.’’

West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said last week that the city also has received unsolicited bids from three developers who have expressed interest in the 160 acres, but she declined to elaborate, saying they invoked a state law that lets businesses seek confidentiality when negotiating for economic incentives to locate in Florida.

Taylor, however, said she was optimistic that the land ultimately will host the Astros and Nationals. She said she met Friday in West Palm Beach with former Congressman Mark Foley, a lobbyist for the Nationals; Giles Kibbe, the Astros’ general counsel; and Tom McNicholas, an Astros lobbyist.

Without going into detail, Taylor said the teams’ financing proposal “sounds better” than what the teams shared with the county and city at a meeting in May.

Taylor said the project would cost about $140 million. About $111 million would be financed from public money — $50 million from state money and the balance from a county tax on hotels and rentals.

Taylor said she is trying to line up a meeting with the teams and county officials this week.

“I think we are closer,’’ she said. “I know the county is really working to try to get this deal to go through.’’

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