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Developer holds key to luring Nats to City of Palms Park

Washington NationalsA developer interested in redeveloping the area around City of Palms Park could be key in luring the Washington Nationals to Fort Myers for spring training.

Lee County and the Washington Nationals have a history of sorts: when the Nats front office began a search for a new spring-training home, county officials and the Nats negotiated a City of Palms lease. The Nats asked for $36.6 million in ballpark/training improvements and were willing to put up with some of the issues — separate minor- and major-league facilities, a small ballpark footprint with limited parking and limited financial opportunities — that drove the Boston Red Sox to a new spring facility. The problem with the plan: Lee County doesn’t have a penny to pay for ballpark improvements, with tourism taxes totally committed to JetBlue Park and improvements to Hammond Stadium, spring home of the Minnesota Twins. With no improvements on the table, the Nationals turned their attention to a new Kissimmee spring complex, but the proposal was shot down by Osceola County officials.

So previously rejected suitors are coming back to the Nats: Brevard County is talking major improvements to keep the team at Space Coast Stadium, and Lee County has set up a Sept. 9 meeting with Nationals representatives to lay out a City of Palms Park plan. This one could be different: the county has been talking with Rockford Construction about a mixed-use development at City of Palms Park. While a final plan has not been reached, the general outline of the proposal has Rockford Construction paying for City of Palms Park improvements in exchange for free land or property-tax rebates — things the county and Fort Myers can give up without actually costing a lot.

There are pluses to moving to Fort Myers: with three other teams (Boston, Minnesota, Tampa Bay) in the general area, there will be far fewer long bus trips during spring training and much easier minor-league scheduling. (Indeed, a cluster of four teams is perfect for scheduling minor-league matches.) But there are also minuses: you run the risk of saturating the market both in terms of fans (hotel rooms are already at a premium in Fort Myers) and sponsors. From the News-Press:

Under the plan, Lee and Fort Myers could offer Rockford publicly owned land in and around the stadium, Henderson said. Additionally, because City of Palms is in a redevelopment area, officials could give a portion of property taxes to Rockford.

Property values in the working class neighborhood could increase if Rockford realizes its vision for a mixed-use development that features housing, restaurants and bars.

Henderson said the company has experience redeveloping a large portion of Grand Rapids, Mich.

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