What’s next in the Nats’ long search for a new spring home? (updated)

So Kissimmee, Fla., is out as a possible spring training base for the Nationals. Where does that leave the Nats in terms of their longstanding desire to relocate spring camp to a location that offers both a new stadium and more teams closer by?

For the time being, they’ll stay in Viera, Space Coast Stadium and the adjacent minor league complex. Though it’s not their preference, the Nationals at least have a functional facility at their disposal - at least until their lease runs out at the end of 2017. While they can leave before then, because they’ve paid off $7.1 million in construction bonds, they aren’t required to.

But it’s clear the Nationals view the rejection of a planned $98 million complex in Kissimmee as a temporary roadblock and intend to continue working toward a new, permanent home.

Osceola County commissioners on Monday night voted 4-1 not to proceed with the planned new stadium complex on Route 192. Commissioners expressed concerns that the county didn’t need the tourist dollars the Nationals would provide and hinted that they were skeptical of the economic impact the team would have.

“While the Washington Nationals are sorry that we couldn’t come to an agreement with Osceola County, we recognize this was just one option toward finding the right site, deal and partner to build our one-of-a-kind, family-friendly spring training and fan experience facility,” the Nationals said in a team-issued statement. “We would like to thank Osceola County for approaching us about this project and for their professionalism and good spirit throughout the negotiations. We will continue to talk with other interested counties in Florida and Arizona and believe that the appropriate combination of site and investment will pay dividends for the right community long into the future.”

Principal owner Mark Lerner has previously visited Arizona to scout out potential spring training sites and to view the latest amenities offered in recently constructed stadiums in the Phoenix suburbs. But I suspect the mention of Arizona in the above statement is more about keeping options open than realistic proposals. There are currently 15 teams training in Florida and 15 teams training in Arizona - a perfect split that affords teams off-days throughout the spring because only seven games between major league teams can occur on a given day (unless someone plays a college team or in years where there are World Baseball Classic exhibition games).

Besides, while Arizona might seem attractive, it’s a logistical nightmare for a fan base that’s 2,300 miles away. Florida is an optimum location because it’s driveable, the Amtrak Auto Train travels from D.C.’s Lorton suburb to Sanford in the center of the Sunshine State and there are ample hotels to fit a family budget. In fact, the proximity between the team and its fans is what precipitated the Dodgers to move from Vero Beach, Fla., its spring home for 60 years, to Camelback Ranch in Glendale in 2009. Don’t discount the impact of fans’ ability to reach spring training in the Nationals’ decision - it’s critical.

So what’s left in Florida? The Nats have had dalliances with Fort Myers and Kissimmee go belly-up over funding issues, and despite the presence of some state money to ensure that they don’t move, communities in Florida aren’t in the mode of footing the bill for new stadium complexes.

The Mets have been making inquiries about a partner to share an expanded Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, an arrangement that would help them cut operating expenses and share the cost of rehabbing an existing stadium site. Sharing a facility with a National League East foe probably isn’t the first choice for the Nationals, but they might be willing to do so, particularly if the Astros and Blue Jays - as rumored - partner on a new complex in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Originally, the Astros and Nationals were to have shared the new Kissimmee facility, but those plans went awry when the Astros were lured to the East Coast.

Should the Blue Jays and Astros move to Palm Beach Gardens, and if the the Nationals share Port St. Lucie with the Mets, that would put six teams within a one-hour drive of Jupiter, Fla., which houses a complex shared by the Cardinals and Marlins. And the Braves in Lake Buena Vista are a little under two hours from Port St. Lucie. The Nats may be willing to trade more teams in close proximity for having to frequently play three division foes.

There’s always the chance that the Lerners decide to foot more of the cost to rehab City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, or make another run at Kissimmee, agreeing to bear more of the financial burden. Remember, their talks with Osceola County about Kissimmee were shrouded in a non-disclosure agreement for months. The Lerners are shrewd enough to approach this cat-and-mouse game like a chess match, thinking a few moves ahead and able to change course depending on what happens because they have options.

Dodgertown in Vero Beach, something mentioned in a Twitter conversation yesterday, probably isn’t an option. It’s now privately owned and busy hosting youth tournaments and corporate events. The MLB Network reality show “The Next Knuckler” was shot there over the winter. Vero Beach was always one of my favorite stops on the Grapefruit League schedule because it was steeped in history; now, the Dodgertown logo is all but erased from the premises.

If the Blue Jays leave Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Fla., that would leave on opening on the state’s west coast. The Blue Jays have trained there since their inception in 1977, but like other once-decent ballparks, it lacks the newfangled amenities teams now crave, hence the Blue Jays’ rumored interest in Palm Beach Gardens. But Lerner would be wise to keep Dunedin as a bargaining chip, because it never hurts to have a vacant ballpark as leverage in negotiations.

There are other abandoned stadiums across the Sunshine State, but it’s unlikely the Nationals would be interest in Fort Lauderdale Stadium (once the spring home of the Orioles), Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven (the Red Sox’s site before moving to City of Palms Park from 1966-92 and the spring home of the Indians from 1993-2008), Homestead Sports Complex in Homestead (which was built for the Indians and destroyed by Hurricane Andrew, a park that is south of Miami and presents logistical nightmares; it was used in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” as a football stadium) or Plant City Park in Plant City (the Reds’ former base which has been reformatted for soccer). You can see why cities in Florida are skeptical of shelling out big bucks for stadiums, and the abandoned facilities would cost more to get up to playing shape.

Maybe there’s another city that desperately wants to expand its tourism base and is willing to do whatever it takes to lure a major league club. It’s doubtful, but not completely out of the realm of possibility. Naples has previously made a run at a couple of teams, but it’s placement in southwest Florida presents the same travel issues the Nationals are trying to escape. All it takes is one city thinking ahead to make a match.

The Nationals always expected to be in Viera in 2014 - there was no way a new stadium in Kissimmee was going to be ready for next spring, after all - so they remain in a holding pattern. At least they’re not orphans (the Orioles once trained in Sarasota and played a full spring schedule of road games). Only now, there is one less option and a growing desire to be somewhere else.

Update: According to this story in the Fort Myers News-Press, at least one official in that city wants to reopen discussions with the Nationals about City of Palms Park now that Kissimmee has cast the Nats aside.

“We have a second opportunity to again look at what the Nationals expect, look at what Lee County and the City of Fort Myers and private developers can fund and put forward another offer,” Fort Myers councilman Dan Flanders told the newspaper.

Flanders, whose district includes City of Palms Park, wants the Lee County to begin discussions with the Nationals anew, suggesting that a private/public partnership might get the ball rolling.

(A tip o’ the old ballcap to @HalfStreetHeart for the article.)

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