What could have made Nationals, Astros walk away from stadium deal

Were the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals really prepared to walk away this month from a commitment, two years in the making, to open a spring training complex in West Palm Beach?

The answer is yes, if team officials are to be believed.

The Astros and Nationals already had accomplished the project’s heavy lifting – securing 160 acres of public land and $163 million in public money to help finance the $135 million project.

But three weeks ago, the teams raised a new concern – that a future governor or state legislature sometime over the next 30 years might pass a new law requiring sports teams to pay property taxes on facilities paid for with public money.

At the teams’ insistence, the county agreed last week to pay the tax bill if such a law was ever passed. But what wasn’t known until this week was that the teams threatened to walk away from the deal if the county didn’t agree.

“It was a deal breaker,’’ Arthur Fuccillo, a general partner for the Nationals, told The Palm Beach Post.

A deal-breaker? Even though that would have forced the teams to start all over again with a search for a new spring home or to try re-negotiate their current leases in Kissimmee (Astros) and Viera (Nationals)?

Yes, according to Giles Kibbe, general counsel for the Astros.

The teams already have agreed to contribute $68.8 million of their own money toward the project – the highest team contribution to any spring training complex in Florida or Arizona. That money will be chipped in through annual payments averaging $2.4 million.

The Astros and Nationals weren’t prepared to spend anything more other than stadium cost overruns, Kibbe said.

If such a law existed today, the property tax bill on the new West Palm Beach ballpark would be about $941,000 this year, based on a theoretical valuation compiled for the county by Property Appraiser Gary Nikolits’ office.

“That’s a lot of money,’’ Kibbe said.

Now, the county will be responsible for the majority of the bill, with the city crediting the rest of it. But county officials don’t ever expect to have to pay taxes on the site because they can’t fathom the idea of such a law ever being passed.

Gov. Rick Scott has pledged to save spring training in Florida and has made two public visits to West Palm Beach this year to tout the new stadium.

But team officials claim a lawmaker a few years ago raised the idea of such a law, but it died in committee. Team officials say the county first raised the tax issue during negotiations three weeks ago, prompting the teams to insist on the exemption.

“It’s a long lease. It’s 30 years, so you never know what’s going to happen,’’ Kibbe said.

He said the exemption on future property taxes is not new. Other sports facilities in Florida, including the New York Mets’ Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, have similar protection.

“It was critical to the teams that we be consistent with other agreements in the state,’’ Fuccillo said.

Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter does not have that protection. The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals have told the county they will want the same exemption that the Astros and Nationals have, meaning the county would have to pay taxes at Roger Dean Stadium, too.

County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor, whose district includes the new baseball stadium, said she isn’t sure whether the Astros and Nationals were serious about walking away from the deal without the tax exemption.

“I don’t know what they would have done,’’ Taylor said.

“There were lot of things coming up at the last minute. People on both sides were just getting a little tired. I would hope they would not have left because it’s going to be a wonderful project.’’

Staff reporter Mike Stucka contributed to this story.

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