BRADENTON, Fla. - An effort to boost spring training in Florida's southeast advanced this week with the approval of a land swap to accommodate a bond-financed ballpark for two Major League Baseball teams.
West Palm Beach on Monday agreed to exchange a 158.8-acre site it owns in the city for a 1.7-acre downtown plot owned by Palm Beach County. The county approved terms of the deal Tuesday.
The $135 million ballpark on the larger of the two sites would be owned by the county, and house spring training for the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals. The Astros plan to move 150 miles south from their current digs in Kissimmee, near Orlando, and the Nationals 130 miles south from Viera, near Melbourne.
Contract details still must be finalized by both governments and the teams, and the Florida Legislature must also agree to downsize a buffer zone on a portion of the ballpark site during its session that starts March 3.
The city has already requested that lawmakers agree to change the buffer, though it likely won't be finalized until the end of the session on May 1.
The Palm Beach deal represents the most concrete step to date in the county's attempt to lure two new teams following on and off negotiations over the past two years, said county Commissioner Hal Valeche.
"It has died literally a thousand deaths and it has been resuscitated each time," Valeche said. "I think we have the potential to attract some more teams here."
The county had tried to negotiate with the city for a land deal last year, but city officials balked and later received a proposal to develop the property, which is the site of a former landfill. That deal fell through.
Last September, county commissioners rejected the finance plan forwarded by the Nationals and Astros for funding a new $140 million stadium.
At issue then was the plan's reliance on gap financing from the county's tourist development bed tax to build the ballpark. The new deal requires the team to pay for cost overruns.
"This is a special thanks to all of you for saving baseball in South Florida, and especially the Palm Beaches," Nationals' minority partner Arthur Fuccillo told county commissioners Tuesday.
Palm Beach County already owns Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, which was built in 1998 and is the spring home of the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals. The debt for Roger Dean will be paid off next year.
County officials began looking for more teams to preserve a critical mass of spring training teams on the state's Atlantic coast, as nine of the 15 teams in Florida's Grapefruit League spring training play in central-west Florida on the Gulf Coast side of the state.
Remaining east coast teams had warned that spring training could be lost there altogether because of lengthy travel time between other in-state venues for games.
If the current deal stays on course, Palm Beach County will have the only two baseball spring training ballparks in the state that each host two MLB teams.
Along with the potential for four teams in the county, the New York Mets play their spring games in Port St. Lucie about 50 miles to the north of West Palm.
Approval of the term sheet for the new ballpark this week sets the stage for officials to negotiate a final agreement to be approved by the city, county, and the teams this summer.
After that a construction contract must be approved, according to Palm Beach County Debt Manager Sherry Brown.
The finance plan for the new ballpark calls for the county to use $5 million in cash to design the facility.
The Astros and Nationals will pay the county rent totaling $68.8 million over 28 years in escalating annual payments, according to the term sheet approved this week.
They will also be responsible for cost overruns during construction as well as maintenance and operations.
The rental payment plan calls for the teams to pay $2.2 million for eight years, beginning with the county's third annual debt service payment. For the next 12 years, the amount will increase to $2.5 million a year. In the final eight years of the contract, payments will increase to $2.65 million annually.
The teams are also paying the cost of developing a 12-acre city park on the stadium site, which was included as part of the land swap.
The park's cost is unknown at this point because the city has not yet selected the amenities for it.
The county will issue $130 million of non-ad valorem revenue bonds backed by a covenant to budget and appropriate, though the intention is to cover debt service with bed taxes, Brown said.
The county will also apply for a $2 million annual sales tax rebate from a state-sponsored spring training sports funding program.
The bonds are expected to be issued early next year.
The deal may be structured as all taxable because of the team payments. The final structure could be a combination of taxable and tax exempt bonds, said Brown.
The county's financial advisors for the ballpark project are Public Financial Management Inc. and Spectrum Municipal Services.
Bond counsel is Locke Lord Edwards LLP, a firm founded recently by Locke Lord and Edwards Wildman Palmer. Disclosure counsel is Nabors, Giblin & Nickerson PA.
Gilt-edged Palm Beach County separately plans to be in the market two days next week with the competitive sale of two refunding deals. PFM and Spectrum are advising on both transactions.
A $24.9 million water and sewer refunding is set to price Tuesday. Bond counsel is Bryant Miller Olive PA.
On Wednesday, the county expects to price $66.1 million of public improvement revenue refunding bonds with Greenberg Traurig PA as bond counsel.
The county's policy on refundings is to obtain a minimum of 5% savings.
The combined savings from both refundings next week is estimated at about 9% or $8.5 million of refunded par, Brown said.