Strike 2! Tourist panel rejects teams again; next pitch to commission

The Washington Nationals and Houston Astros on Tuesday will ask the Palm Beach County Commission for about $145 million in hotel tax money for a new baseball stadium, a move that would help preserve spring training on Florida’s east coast but also potentially siphon away millions of dollars meant for other tourism-related needs over the next 30 years.

In a final push to secure that money, the teams Monday sought to portray their proposed $140 million stadium in West Palm Beach as a modest project without the “bells and whistles” of other recently-built stadiums in Arizona.

The teams also said they offered to contribute nearly $69 million to the project – which ultimately will drive up ticket prices — and made other concessions at the insistence of county staff during eight months of negotiations.

“I want to point out that your staff has done an incredible job of beating us up pretty well here in terms of getting us to move from where we were when we first walked in,’’ Arthur Fuccillo, a general partner for the Nationals, told the county Tourist Development Council on Monday.

Fuccillo also said he remained confident that the stadium will be built on 160 acres in West Palm Beach, even though the city announced Friday that it is considering a $14 million offer for the site from an unnamed developer seeking to build a mixed-use project.

West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said Sunday in an “insider newsletter” that the city is giving serious consideration to the $14 million offer and that “renewed talk of building a facility in Lake Worth is appealing.”

But the teams on Monday publicly said for the first time that a backup site in John Prince Park just west of Lake Worth will not fit their needs because it is too small.

If county commissioners grant the teams’ request, they would override a recommendation from both the Tourist Development Council and county staff to allocate just $90 million in hotel tax revenue to help finance the $140 million stadium.

Even after the TDC on Monday rejected a request for another $55 million in bed tax money (based on a 3.1 percent annual escalator), the teams huddled with county officials in the hallway of the Palm Beach County Convention Center to come up with yet another financing plan to pitch to county commissioners Tuesday.

County officials wouldn’t share details, but Fuccillo suggested the missing chunk of money could come from other portions of the bed tax already earmarked for tourism promotion, beach enhancement and cultural programs.

The TDC has voted twice – Sept. 11 and Monday – to reject a bed-tax allocation that would potentially draw money from allocations designated for other tourist-related entities. So far, all proposals have focused on money from the first and fourth penny of the bed tax – the portions earmarked for so-called “bricks and mortar’ projects.

Tuesday could mark the first time other portions of the bed-tax are considered for the baseball project as well as possibly using revenue from a proposed increase in the bed tax. The tax rate currently is 5 percent of room charges at hotel, motels and short-term rental properties but the commission next month will consider raising it to 6 percent.

Fuccillo said an exception should be made because the teams are offering to contribute so much, including annual maintenance costs worth at least $3 million a year.

He said the Nationals started considering West Palm Beach back in February as a one-team facility before being told the county preferred a shared arrangement with the Astros. “I joked that it was an arranged marriage,’’ Fuccillo said.

Fuccillo also said the county rejected three other proposals by the teams – to finance the project over 20 years and with tax-free bonds and without any contribution from Astros or Nationals.

Now, the latest proposal calls for 30-year taxable bonds and the teams’ contributing $68.8 million, which they increased from $56.7 million on Friday.

“A dramatic move to indicate our support,’’ he told TDC members. “We have done it in good faith and with one objective in mind, that is to locate in Palm Beach County.’’

Even with their $68.8 million contribution, the teams still are seeking about $195 million in public money for the project — $50 million from the state in addition to about $145 million from the bed-tax money.

Fuccillo, though, tried to downplay the notion that the teams are trying to build an exorbitant facility.

“This will not be state-of –the-art,’’ he said. “This will be for Florida we think the best facility that has been built to date but it will be less expensive and less bells and whistles than (recently-built complexes in) Arizona.’’

But he also said ticket prices at the West Palm stadium would range from the low-to-mid $20s – higher than prices at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter — because of a ticket surcharge to help the team’s pay an annual rent that will average $2.5 million over 28 years.

If the teams end up getting the money, a major unresolved issue is the need for the county to take control of the West Palm Beach site, south of 45th Street between Haverhill Road and Military Trail.

Fuccillo said he is not concerned about the city’s announcement about a $14 million offer on the land, which the city owns. He said a study commissioned by the teams shows the baseball project will generate $120 million a year in economic activity.

The teams plan to make a presentation to the city commission on Oct. 13 — the same work session in which commissioners will discuss the unnamed developer’s $14 million offer.

“We are hoping, in the end, that the city of West Palm Beach likes our proposal better,’’ he said.

Fuccillo said the teams are not considering an 84-acre site in John Prince Park just outside Lake Worth because it is too small. He showed a slide of the West Palm Beach site superimposed over the proposal baseball site in John Prince Park – half of the fields covered Lake Osborne.

“It’s not even remotely close to the amount of acreage you need for a two-team facility,’’ he told the TDC.

“If the county is willing to fill in half the lake and get it to the point where it can be developed, then you have an opportunity in John Prince Park.’’

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