Lee County votes to pursue Nationals for spring training

Lee County, Fla., commissioners voted this morning to enter into negotiations with the Nationals that could lead to the club moving from its current spring training facility following the 2013 Grapefruit League season and relocating from Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., to City of Palms Park across the state in Fort Myers.

According to the Naples Daily News, the county’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to pursue the Nationals, who would join the American League’s Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers. The Red Sox trained at City of Palms Park until moving into a new stadium, JetBlue Park, for spring training this year.

Representatives of Lee County will travel to Washington, D.C., in April or May to meet with the Nationals, who have trained at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., since the team relocated from Montreal prior to the 2005 season.

Lee County will spend the next 90 days determining the Nationals’ needs in a spring training facility and whether they can meet them. Among the upgrades the Nationals are reportedly seeking are expanded player development facilities, improvements in equipment and upgrades at City of Palms Park, which opened in 1993.

The Nationals have been trying to find a better alternative than Viera for several years because the city’s placement on Florida’s east coast creates logistical and travel problems. The team’s closest opponents are located in Kissimmee, Fla., and Lake Buena Vista, Fla., each about a 75-minute bus ride from Space Coast Stadium.

City of Palms Park would put the Nationals closer to more teams - in addition to the nearby Twins and Red Sox, the Rays, Orioles and Pirates are all within 90 miles. But the former minor league facilities used by the Red Sox in Fort Myers are several miles from City of Palms Park, a hurdle that might have to be overcome for a deal to be struck.

The Nationals are obligated to remain in Viera at least through spring training 2013, according to their lease with Brevard County. Though the lease runs through 2017, the Nationals can get out of the agreement after March 2013, when their annual bond payment of $765,000 ends.

Lee County Commissioners also said at today’s meeting that they will make improvements to Lee County Stadium, the spring home of the Twins and Minnesota’s Single-A affiliate in the Florida State League, a priority. The Twins want improvements that could total as much as $60 million and might impact the jurisdiction’s ability to meet the Nationals’ demands.

Representatives of Lee County and Fort Myers met with the Nationals in D.C. in December and learned that the team wanted additional practice fields closer to City of Palms Park, better connectivity between the facility and main roadways, and significant upgrades at the stadium.

An additional point in Lee County’s favor is the nearby teams. The Nats currently see a lot of the Braves, Mets and Marlins - all National League East opponents - during spring training. Moving to Fort Myers would mean fewer games against divisional foes. The closest NL East team to Fort Myers during spring training is the Phillies in Clearwater, Fla., a little over two hours northwest.

Should the Nationals depart Viera, it could set off a chain of events to change the face of the Grapefruit League. The Mets in Port St. Lucie, and Marlins and Cardinals in Jupiter, would be the lone remaining teams on the state’s east coast. All have provisions in their current deals that allow them to break their leases should the number of teams on the east coast drop below four.

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