State bill would make millions in taxpayer dollars available for spring training facilities

TALLAHASSEE — If two spring training teams are sizing up a move to Palm Beach Gardens, their new stadium could be in line for $40 million from the state under a new Senate proposal.

In an amendment to a larger economic incentives bill, a Senate budget subcommittee voted Wednesday to offer cash for upgrading or building spring training facilities. Stadiums that host one team could apply for up to $20 million over a 30-year span. Facilities with two teams could receive $40 million. Local governments would have to match the state money, and payouts would start in 2015-16.

The cash would come at a time when Florida's east coast spring training scene is in flux. Currently, four teams train on the east coast. That's a critical number to maintain for St. Lucie County. In their contract, the New York Mets can leave if three or fewer teams train nearby. So can the St. Louis Cardinals, who play in Jupiter.

Teams from outside the east coast have been shopping around the northern Palm Beach County area for a new home, possibly in Palm Beach Gardens, Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal Valeche confirmed two weeks ago. St. Lucie also dug into projected costs to upgrade the Mets' grounds to support another team. The study conducted by the University of Michigan put a steep $60 million price tag on that expansion.

The amendment by Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is also in line with 's Gov. Rick Scott push to keep spring training teams from leaving Florida for Arizona.

Out of Florida's 15 spring training clubs, three have leases up for renewal in 2016 and two are up in 2017. The Washington Nationals, Astros, Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays are currently negotiating leases or looking to move. Six teams have ditched Florida for Arizona since 1998.

Astros owner Jim Crane toured the Mets facility last spring, but Crane has expressed interest in building a new two-team facility elsewhere on the east coast. He already has a stake in the community as owner of the Floridian golf club in Palm City.

Florida already struck agreements to reward 10 Major League Baseball squads that train in Florida over 15- to 30-year periods. Local governments have received almost $43 million of the $122 million the state promised for stadium assistance. But how the money is awarded now is not reliable year after year, Scott said in a news release.

New state money isn't a sure thing, however. In a related amendment, lawmakers made the spring training cash contingent on getting rid of an international banking incentive for banks with offices in Florida. Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said that program outlived its usefulness. Two Democratic senators — Gwen Margolis of Miami and Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood — disagreed and voted against the amendment.

Right now, that tax break disappears in SB 306. The controversial bill would help the Miami Dolphins with $400 million in stadium renovations by giving state incentive money and letting Miami-Dade County increase its bed tax.

The full Senate would need to approve the spring training money, and the concept would need to gain steam in the Florida House. Scott, who has proposed $5 million a year available for spring training, would need to sign off on it.

The Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development passed the amended bill, SB 406, which focuses on additional reporting requirements for economic incentives. The cash-for-jobs programs have come under fire after the collapse of Digital Domain in Port St. Lucie, which brought down $20 million in state taxpayer help with it.

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