- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ten days ago, as the Washington Nationals were making their final stop of the spring, they pulled up their buses outside of JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., and looked around. Principal owner Mark Lerner and Alan Gottlieb, the COO of Lerner Sports, toured the park and came away impressed.

By 2014, Lerner could be frequenting the Boston Red Sox’s new spring home.

The Nationals are 22 days into a 90-day negotiating window with Lee County to move the team’s spring base to the vacated City of Palms Park in Fort Myers. They’re not “deep” into the negotiations, Lerner said Thursday, and they still are fielding calls from other areas wanting to lure the Nationals. But Lee County remains at the top of the list.

“We’re hoping to have some discussions with them starting in a few weeks and see if they can do what they need to do on their end to make it happen,” Lerner said. “If we can pull it off down there, we’d be very, very happy.”

The Nationals’ lease with Brevard County for their complex in Viera runs through 2017, but after 2013 the bond payments drop to less than $800,000. That gives the Nationals a 2014 target date for moving out of Space Coast Stadium in an effort to ease their spring travel schedule.

Lerner noted the benefits of Fort Myers: having direct flights from the D.C. area, “great beaches, great amenities,” and most importantly, “teams close by.” The Minnesota Twins and Red Sox train in Fort Myers. The Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays are within an hour away. The Nationals currently travel at least 70 minutes one way for their closest trip in the spring. Most are 90- to 120-minute rides each way.

“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,” Lerner said. “It’s totally a geography question why we need to leave Brevard. The people have been wonderful to us, but it’s just grueling on the team.”

City of Palms Park would require significant renovations if the Nationals were to move there. The minor league complex is a few miles down the road, as opposed to right behind Space Coast Stadium in Viera. That wouldn’t be prohibitive to the Nationals, though, as Lerner said the requisite renovations would add a back field at City of Palms Park, another half-field, an agility field, a batting cage and a bigger clubhouse.

“It’ s not ideal [to have the minor league complex separate], but it’s perfectly acceptable, Lerner said.

The 90-day window for negotiations between the Nationals and Lee County will close in the third week of June.

“We’ve done a plan, and we’ve presented it to them,” Lerner added. “Now they have to figure out, basically, if they can afford it. “

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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