Atlanta Braves let out word: they would return to Palm Beach County

Less than a year after the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals secured millions in local tourist tax dollars for a new Grapefruit League facility, the Atlanta Braves are still considering Palm Beach County for a new spring training home.

The Braves, who trained in West Palm Beach for 35 years before moving to Orlando in 1998, have hired public affairs consultants Tom McNicholas and Rachel Ondrus to work as lobbyists in the county.

“We have a chance for a homecoming now, we hope,’’ Braves President John Schuerholz told The Palm Beach Post on Tuesday.

“We have engaged with groups in various communities, and obviously, by our acknowledgement that we have hired a lobbyist in Palm Beach County, that says we are interested there as well.’’

McNicholas would not comment other than to say his firm is representing the Braves in Palm Beach County “and in other communities throughout Florida.’’

The Braves have not had any formal meetings with any local elected officials and they have not found a preferred site in the county, although they are believed to be focusing from Lake Worth south to Boca Raton, the rich southern half of the county where no teams train.

Schuerholz said the team’s goal is to move to either the west or east coast of Florida, where other Grapefruit League teams are clustered.

He also knows that a return to the east coast near West Palm Beach, where the team trained from 1962 to 1997, would bring it close to a population that has longer baseball ties with the Braves than with the Miami Marlins, which began play in 1993.

But it will be a heavy lift for local tourism and cultural leaders who will be wary about giving away another slice of the tourist-tax revenue pie to yet another baseball team.

This past year, the county doled out about $113 million in tourism money for the Nationals and Astros to help finance the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the $144 million facility that will be shared south of 45th Street next spring. The teams, which take advantage of Florida’s warm weather to train for about six weeks in February and March before starting their season, also got $50 million in state money.

County Administrator Verdenia Baker said her staff has had no meetings with Braves representatives.

“I am not aware of any county land or any county revenue sources,” she said.

County Commissioner Steven Abrams, whose district includes parts of south county, said a new proposal might need a city’s financial help, which would be hard.

“Why would a municipality agree to help fund a stadium when West Palm did not participate in funding their stadium?” he said, referring to the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

West Palm provided land but only in exchange for prime downtown land.

Even Schuerholz admitted the long-shot chances of the Braves returning: “I don’t know if there’s a chance, but that would be a pleasant thing for a lot of people,’’ he said.

The Braves are under pressure to move to a new home in 2018 and they are keeping all their options open, even if those options seem like long-shots.

The Astros leaving Kissimmee and the Nationals leaving Viera means there will be just one team close to Atlanta’s spring training complex in Disney World in 2017 — the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland.

“That’s a 40-plus-minute drive. It’s too much time, too many hours on the bus and not enough hours on the field. And that’s certainly likely to happen if things stay as they are,’’ he said.

The Braves in September unveiled plans for a spring training complex on a 260-acre former landfill in Pinellas County north of St. Petersburg. But that proposal has not taken off.

Schuerholz wouldn’t discuss the names and number of communities the team has talked with. Asked if one had the edge over the other, he replied: “I don’t know how you measure those things. Every community we are talking to we are talking to seriously.

He said the Braves hired McNicholas on strong recommendations from several people, including Astros owner Jim Crane.

The Braves made at least two inquiries to local officials in 2015. Real estate consultants representing the team met in March with then-county Mayor Shelley Vana. And in July, Schuerholz called Palm Beach Gardens City Manager Ron Ferris, whose city ultimately declined to host teams.

But Abrams said he was willing to keep an open mind, considering how the Braves could be a big draw.

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