Officials from Lee County, Fort Myers and Rockford Construction met yesterday in Washington with Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner to discuss the team's potential move to vacant City of Palms Park for spring training, perhaps as early as the 2015 Grapefruit League season.
According to this story in the Fort Myers News-Press, Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais characterized the meeting as a fact-finding mission but sounded hopeful that progress was made that could result in the Nationals moving their spring training base from Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla.
"The meeting with Rockford Development and the Nationals was productive for Lee County and the City of Fort Myers," Desjarlais said in a statement. "We were able to continue discussions about the potential structure of a public-private partnership that would make improvements to the City of Palms and have the Nationals here for spring training in 2015."
But Desjarlais cautioned he's not interested in being used for leverage to extort a better deal from another municipality or getting caught in a bidding war between communities hoping to lure the Nationals.
"We're not in a position where we're going to compete," he told the newspaper. "Either the Nationals are going to commit to Lee County, or they're going to negotiate someplace else. If they do that, we'll wish them the best of luck. Then we'll get about the business of deciding what else might go in that property (City of Palms)."
Lee County isn't able to pay the more than $30 million necessary to complete renovations requested by the Nationals at City of Palms Park, which most recently housed the Red Sox before that team moved to JetBlue Park two springs ago. That's why Lee County and Fort Myers officials are exploring the public-private partnership with Rockford Construction, which hopes to use tax breaks to make City of Palms Park the centerpiece of a renewal effort that would bring retail and office space to the area in a project that could cost $40-$50 million.
The Nationals have a lease with Brevard County for Space Coast Stadium that runs through 2017, but the team is able to leave early because it has repaid construction bonds. The Nationals are seeking a spring training site that is closer to more teams; currently, their shortest trip is an hour away, and there are only three other Grapefruit League teams remaining on Florida's east coast.