SPRING TRAINING BASEBALL: How a disgraced local politician helped save the game -- check out our special look here.
Millions of dollars in public money weren’t the only reasons the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals are building a new spring training complex in West Palm Beach.
Sheer political will made it happen, too.
“It has died literally a thousand deaths and it has been resuscitated each time,” Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal Valeche said about the project.
Among the twists and turns the project took after county officials took over negotiations in early 2014:
- Bob Weisman, the county administrator at the time, said he thought the deal was dead after a negotiating session with the teams and county budget officials at the Governmental Center in May 2014. At the meeting, the Astros and Nationals were insisting on a $160 million facility, far more than Weisman was authorized to endorse.
“I thought it was over. We were hopelessly apart,’’ Weisman recalled. “I thought that was our last meeting and they were going to leave.’’
The County Commission would keep the negotiations alive later that year by agreeing to consider more money but not all of the teams’ request. Ultimately, government sources will pay roughly half of the $144 million project’s cost, including interest over 30 years.
“At every stage of the game, the County Commission kept it going,’’ Weisman said
- Tourism officials wouldn’t endorse the teams’ original request for $155 million in hotel tax revenue. Commissioners eventually signed off on $113 million, even though at the time of the vote the new project still had no home.
- When it looked like the city might not trade the 160-acre site to the county, the Nationals considered moving to the Minto West development, now called Westlake, west of Florida’s Turnpike at Seminole Pratt Whitney Road. The Astros balked because it was too far from the coast.
• Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor at one point marched into Weisman’s office and demanded the county consider giving up its downtown land so the county could secure the baseball site from the city — something county staff had recommended against. Taylor has been perhaps the most vocal baseball supporter because the project is in her district.
• Daniel Martell, executive director of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, in 2014 hosted private meetings in his office with Taylor and West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio to encourage a dialogue between the two leaders at a time when both governments were at odds about the land swap. He also hosted a meeting between Muoio and County Commissioner Shelley Vana, who declared “pigs will fly” before the county ever approved the swap.
• At a 2014 Christmas party on Clematis Street, hosted by the Economic Council, Muoio and Vana, who was county mayor at the time, agreed to try to make the land swap work. Also at the party was one of Scott’s Cabinet members, Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, whose office would sign off on $50 million in state money for the ballpark.
- A bill to shrink a protective zone north of the M Canal — a move that gave the teams 27 acres on the south end of the site — nearly died before its final vote April 29 because of concerns from Miami-Dade County legislators. Those legislators had issues about sports teams benefiting from public money, even though the bill had nothing to do with financial incentives, said Rep. Lori Berman, the bill’s sponsor. The measure won approval, but pulling it could have at least delayed or ultimately derailed the project.
“At the end, it was a little nerve-wracking but it worked out,’’ Berman said.