Nationals Considering Their Spring Training Options

VIERA, Fla.--As the Washington Nationals prepare to begin another spring training at Space Coast Stadium, an intriguing game is playing out behind the scenes among local political, business and tourism leaders.

Brevard County has been the spring training home for a major league baseball team every year since 1993. But that streak could be broken as early as 2014, as officials in the Fort Myers area have been courting the Nationals, trying to persuade last year’s National League East Division winner to move to the west coast of Florida.

The $7.1 million in construction bonds on Space Coast Stadium will be paid off in April. That milestone frees up the Nationals to end their contract to hold spring training at Space Coast Stadium after 2013 without significant financial penalty. It also potentially frees up more than $1 million a year derived from the county’s 5 percent tax on hotel room rentals for purposes unrelated to the stadium or promoting baseball.

At the same time, Andy Anderson, the new chairman of the Brevard County commission, is pushing forward with a multifaceted plan to keep the Nationals in Viera--and perhaps attract a second major league team here to share the stadium and adjacent facilities.

Anderson plans to travel to Washington to meet with Nationals executives as a first step to try to persuade them to make a commitment to stay in Viera. He’s also devising plans to use part of the hotel room tax to pay for renovations to stadium facilities, such as clubhouses, training rooms and other behind-the-scenes areas that may not be state of the art any longer.

In addition, Anderson is seeking ways to reach a deal with a company with access to airplanes to provide the Nationals with free or low-cost air transportation, so that they can schedule games with teams on the west coast of Florida, yet avoid four- or five-hour bus rides. With the current geography of the Grapefruit League, the 16 Nationals home spring training games this year are against the six teams that train in eastern and central Florida. That eliminates such popular teams training on the west coast of Florida as the Yankees (training in Tampa) and Red Sox (Fort Myers).

If the Nationals commit to remaining in Viera, Anderson said his next step will be to work with officials of the economic development commission of Florida’s Space Coast--so named because of NASA’s nearby Kennedy Space Center--and other local business leaders to seek state incentives to expand the stadium complex and add more practice facilities to lure a major league team now conducting spring training in Arizona. The Nationals and a second team would be able to alternate game dates at Space Coast Stadium, but a second team would need additional practice facilities.

In Anderson’s view, it’s more attractive for a major league team to train near the east Florida beaches than near the Arizona desert.

“We may not be successful, but we have to try,” Anderson said.

He said he would not attempt to attract a team with a Florida spring training home, even though that’s what Lee County has been trying to do with the Nationals. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” he said.

Plus, state incentives would not likely be available for an intrastate move.

At the same time, Anderson worries that, with the stadium bonds about to be paid off, there might be a push among local officials to use the money for something unrelated to baseball.

“There are competing interests out here,” said Anderson, who recently became a member of the Brevard County tourist development council.

The Price To Play

At stake, for example, is the $761,000 a year that had been used to pay off the bond debt, as well as up to $350,000 a year for promoting and advertising tourism in Brevard County that came out of the tax that was initially added in 1994 to support spring training here. Partly as a result of state law changes, some of that $350,000 currently goes to promoting spring training in Viera, but the majority is used for other purposes.

“The tourism industry is salivating over the money,” said Rob Varley, executive director of the Space Coast office of tourism. “Obviously, there are people wondering how they can get some of this money once the bonds are paid off.”

Brevard County recently hired a Chicago firm, C.H. Johnson Consulting Inc., to help determine the economic impact of major league spring training on the Space Coast, as well as to examine alternative uses for Space Coast Stadium if the Nationals leave.

Company president Charlie Johnson said he made a preliminary presentation in December to several Brevard government and tourism officials. During that presentation, he indicated that the Nationals’ spring training generates 37,070 “room nights” for local hotels, meaning that number of rooms are booked by either people affiliated with baseball spring training or by fans coming to the area to watch games. Assuming a room rate of $100 a night, that’s more than $3.7 million of revenue coming into the local economy, not counting what those visitors spend at local stores and restaurants.

But some tourism officials question those numbers and want to see more data to back them up. They say the consultant needs to delve into how many people actually came to the area primarily to watch spring training games, compared to how many caught a game as an ancillary event.

Bonnie King, sales and marketing director for the Space Coast office of tourism, said, when promoting a community, having a spring training facility is a positive.

“Saying that you have a major league baseball here is always an asset,” King said.

Dave Berman is a reporter for Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.), where a version of this story was first published.