Nationals’ future spring training base up for grabs

Team would prefer less isolated home than Space Coast Stadium

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The Washington Nationals will report to Viera, Fla., in four weeks, filling the clubhouse inside Space Coast Stadium and the surrounding complex with life as they shed their winter doldrums and start on a path that they hope will take them deep into October.

But they’ll do so knowing it may well be their last time starting the journey in that particular corner of Florida.

With the bonds on Space Coast Stadium set to be paid off this April, the Nationals will be essentially free from financial constraints in Brevard County, able to buyout the remainder of their lease for roughly $800,000. And they’ve made no secret of their desire to move somewhere less isolated when that time comes.

To that end, the Nationals — who maintain publicly that they continue to explore all options open to them — may have a more clear-cut picture of those options in the near future.

Brevard County officials plan to visit Washington on Jan. 25 and meet with Nationals officials to present an aggressive attempt to keep the team in Viera, including renovations to Space Coast Stadium and the rest of the Nationals‘ complex, as well as possible low-cost air transportation to alleviate the Nationals‘ taxing travel issues.

But in Lee County, which appears to be the team’s preferred location when it comes to geography, the board of county commissioners plans to meet early in February to determine its financial flexibility to make the necessary upgrades to City of Palms Park and give the Nationals a final answer.

Lee Countyalready hosts the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins and has committed $80 million in bonds for a new Red Sox stadium as well as $40 million in upgrades to the Twins’ facility. The county traditionally pays those expenses with a percentage of its tourist development tax. Because of those commitments to the other organizations, that form of financing has been exhausted. For the county to commit to renovating City of Palms Park and welcome the Nationals, it will need to approve the use of other funds.

“They have to make the final decision as to whether we use some alternative source of financing or if we were going to stick with the traditional and say ‘Well, no, we can’t do that,’” said Doug Muerer, the interim county manager who has been in charge of the negotiations with the Nationals.

“But we need to get it to our board of county commissioners to make an ultimate decision of ‘Yes, let’s continue to look at a way to fund this,’ or ‘No, we just won’t look at this any longer.’”

The facility in Fort Myers may not be exactly what the Nationals hoped, including the fact that the minor-league complex is a few miles away, but Meurer said renovations could make City of Palms Park workable for them by 2014 with larger-scale changes instituted in the years that follow. The advantage, of course, is that the Twins and Red Sox also train in Fort Myers, and the Orioles, Rays and Pirates are all within a 90-minute drive.

The Nationals currently travel at least 70 minutes one way for their closest trip in the spring, with most 90- to 120-minute rides each way and some even further.

“It’s totally a geography question why we need to leave Brevard,” Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner told The Washington Times last April. “The people have been wonderful to us but it’s just grueling on the team. The distance not only kills the team, but when you’re there with your family, driving hundreds and hundreds of miles, it’s just crazy.”

There is another possible competitor to lure the Nationals from Viera, though. In Kissimmee, where the Houston Astros’ lease on Osceola County Stadium expires in 2015, they’ve explored the idea of expanding the complex to host two teams. The Nationals could be one of those teams, though it would require staying in Viera for a few more years.

Mark Pino, public relations officer for Osceola County’s board of county commissioners, deferred all questions on the Nationals‘ possible relocation back to the organization.

“As for the two-team concept, various officials have mentioned it as one future possibility,” Pino said in an e-mail to The Washington Times. “But there are no current plans to expand the spring training complex, either for a single tenant or to accommodate a second team.”

In the end, for the Nationals and any county hoping to lure them or keep them, it will come down to money. The Nationals have evolved into one of major league baseball’s most exciting young teams and they have a growing fanbase. They’re the free agent waiting for the best offer.

“I think anybody who just talked to the ownership and the management of the Nationals feels very comfortable that the Nationals would love to be [in Lee County],” Meurer said. “We very much would like to have them here. This funding really is the key obstacle right now.”

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