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Palm Beach County commissioners embrace idea of luring Atlanta Braves

Less than a year after earmarking millions for the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, a majority of the Palm Beach County Commission wants to consider building another spring training facility, this one for the Atlanta Braves.

Still unanswered is the biggest question: How to pay for the facility, which the Braves want to build in John Prince Park just west of Lake Worth. It could cost up to $100 million.

» RELATED: Atlanta Braves like south end of John Prince Park for spring training complex

But at least four commissioners were enthusiastic about the idea after meeting individually Tuesday and Wednesday in West Palm Beach with Braves President John Schuerholz and Chairman Terry McGuirk. The two team officials also took a driving tour of John Prince Park.

Commissioner Hal Valeche said he might ask his colleagues April 5 to order a staff study of bringing the Braves to the county in time for the 2018 season.

“They’re on a tight time frame. I told them I would try as hard as I could to figure out a creative way to finance this. Clearly that’s the biggest challenge,’’ said Valeche, who met with Braves officials over breakfast Wednesday at Nick’s Diner.

If staff gets that direction next month, the county would be in direct competition with Sarasota County, which has been negotiating with the Braves since March 7.

“We met for 45 minutes and I came away with the impression that they really would like to be here,’’ Valeche said.

If the Braves moved to Lake Worth, it would make Palm Beach County the Grapefruit League home to five teams. The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals share Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, while the Astros and Nationals will begin play at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach in 2017.

That would be the tightest concentration of teams in Florida and rivaled only by Arizona, where 15 teams train within 47 miles.

The Braves trained in West Palm Beach from 1962 to 1997 before moving to Orlando, where their lease expires after the 2017 season.

“They really want to come back. If we can make it happen, it would be great. But it’s going to take money,” said Commissioner Priscilla Taylor, who had lunch Wednesday with Schuerholz and McGuirk at City Cellar in City Place.

County Commissioner Shelley Vana, who met with the Braves officials Tuesday night at a CityPlace steakhouse, said they told her they had spoken recently with Gov. Rick Scott about returning to Palm Beach County.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to have a really popular team with a really great following,’’ Vana said.

The Braves had no comment. But Valeche said the two team officials seemed “laser focused” on John Prince Park. Before Wednesday, the team officials had only looked at the park on Google Earth, according to commissioners.

The Astros and Nationals briefly considered 80 acres in the north end of the 728-acre park, just south of Lake Worth Road and west of Lake Osborne. They rejected it as too small.

But it might be perfect for one team, said Vana. She said the teams showed her an economic study that projected a Braves complex bringing $100 million in economic benefits to the area.

“This is a heavy-duty opportunity with a heavy-duty lift, too,’’ Vana said, alluding to the big question of paying for it. “It can happen if everybody is on board, if there is money and there is willingness.’’

Most commissioners who spoke to the Braves said the project almost certainly would need tourist-tax revenue. That would almost certainly meet fierce opposition from cultural groups that rely on the hotel tax revenue.

. The Braves also would seek money from the state. Taylor said the Braves indicated they would help pay, too. And the county could ask cities to pitch in.

The commission pledged $113 million in 2015 to help finance for the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, a $144 million complex under construction in West Palm Beach south of 45th Street.

The state pledged $50 million for that facility. The Astros and Nationals are paying at least $67 million overall in annual installments over 30 years, plus all cost overruns.

Schuerholz and McGuirk also met Wednesday with Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who said she is open to the idea.

The Braves’ meeting Tuesday night at CityPlace included officials from Lake Worth, Greenacres and the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, an influential group of business leaders that was a driving force behind the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

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