Former U.S. Congressman Mark Foley is going to bat for the Washington Nationals as the Major League Baseball team looks for a potential new spring training home in Palm Beach County.
Foley and Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner met Thursday with County Commissioner Hal Valeche and Audrey Wolf, the county’s facilities director, about the team’s interest in the area.
“They are a very impressive organization, and they are very disposed toward Palm Beach County,’’ Valeche said.
Since Jan. 9, Foley has been registered as a lobbyist for Washington Nationals Spring Training LLC with the county and the cities of Lake Worth, Lantana and Boca Raton.
Foley got to know Lerner during Foley’s days as a Republican congressman in Washington representing the 16th district of Florida from 1994 to 2006.
Foley and Lerner met earlier in the day with Lake Worth City Manager Mike Bornstein, who is trying to lure a team on land just west of Interstate 95 around John Prince Park and Palm Beach State College, in an area from Lake Worth Road to Sixth Avenue South.
In both meetings, Foley mentioned how Nationals Park, which opened in 2008 in southeast Washington, D.C., has helped revitalize a struggling area. The Nationals hope to inject that same kind of economic life if they end up in Palm Beach County.
“Mark said when he was in Washington, southeast Washington was not that nice. And now the stadium has been very transformative and that’s what they want to do here,’’ Valeche said.
Also attending the meeting was Arthur Fucillo, a Nationals team official who is also executive vice president of development and construction at Lerner Enterprises.
“They’re real estate developers. That’s why they are so flexible,’’ Valeche said. “Wherever it goes, they want to be involved in revitalizing the area around it.’’
Foley grew up in Lake Worth and rose through the ranks of local politics before he was elected to Congress. But Bornstein and county officials don’t think that necessarily gives Lake Worth any kind of edge in luring the Nationals.
“We think this is an opportunity we really want to explore,’’ Bornstein said. “Mark (Foley) understands the potential positive impacts and the similarities of here and in Washington.’’
The Nationals have trained at Space Coast Stadium in Viera since 2003, when the franchise was known as the Montreal Expos. Although the lease expires Dec. 31, 2017, the Nationals have asked Brevard County to amend the lease so they can leave by November.
“They’re up in the middle of Brevard County and it’s hard for their fans to get there,’’ Valeche said. “One thing they do like (about Palm Beach County) is that the airplane service from Washington, D.C., to West Palm Beach is very convenient for their fans.’’
The Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays also are interested in the county, and the Milwaukee Brewers also have made overtures.
Other potential sites in Palm Beach County include 160 acres in West Palm Beach on Military Trail just south of 45th Street and land in Boca Raton near Interstate 95 and Spanish River Boulevard.
“We tend to favor a two-team facility, but we are flexible,’’ said Valeche, who is leading a county committee searching for possible spring training sites.
The Astros and Blue Jays wanted to share a $100-million complex that would have been built on 117 acres in Palm Beach Gardens with money from the county’s tourism bed tax. That project fell through last month when the city council, bowing to concerns from residents, voted to end the negotiations.
The county wants to lure at least one more team to help preserve spring training on Florida’s east coast, which has three other teams aside from the Nationals. The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals share a complex in Jupiter. The New York Mets train in Port St. Lucie.
Foley did not returns calls for comment but emailed a statement:
“We are encouraged by the interest the county and various communities have shown in increasing spring training’s viability in Palm Beach County by adding additional teams to compliment the success of Roger Dean stadium.”