By JOHN FINERAN EXECUTIVE SPORTS EDITOR, Charlotte Sun-Herald Newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
Englewood’s Rex Rowley used to have an empty feeling every time he drove on El Jobean Road past Charlotte Sports Park, which he helped get built in the mid-1980s in order to attract the Texas Rangers to Charlotte County for spring training.
Monday, Rowley had a difficult time driving past the Charlotte Sports Park on his way home from the Charlotte County Commissioners meeting.
He had tears in his eyes.
His ballpark, without a spring tenant since the Rangers exited for Surprise, Ariz., in 2002, is now only a few financial hurdles and a major renovation away from becoming the spring training home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2009.
Tuesday, Charlotte County’s four commissioners all agreed that it was advantageous for the county to have a relationship with the Rays, who want to partner with the county in building a $27.2 million event center for not only spring training but professional baseball and other sporting and entertainment events.
The plan needs only the commissioners’ approval of an additional one cent addition to the “bed tax” on hotel and rental properties in the county plus a successful grant request to the state for money set aside to keep major league teams training in Florida from bolting to Arizona as the Rangers and Kansas City Royals did.
“I’m just so happy I can’t talk,” sobbed Rowley, a retired insurance agent and former president of the Englewood-Cape Haze Chamber of Commerce.
Earlier during the citizen input session of the meeting, Rowley was one of several citizens who urged the county commissioners to finish up a deal with the Devil Rays. Only three citizens spoke against it.
“This complex was built for Major League Baseball,” Rowley said. “Over the years when there was discussion to bring baseball back, for various reasons it didn’t work. This one will. The Devil Rays do not require exclusive use of the facility.”
That was good news for representatives of the South Coast League independent franchise which begins play in the park next May. General Manager Omar Roque threw his support behind the Devil Rays’ bid.
Former Major League Baseball player Glenn Beckert, an All-Star second baseman for the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres, also spoke in a positive tone.
“It would be great for this area,” said Beckert, a Rotonda resident.
“When (the Cubs) first went to Mesa (Ariz.) to train, nobody knew where Mesa was.”
Karen Mauer, the executive director of the Englewood-Cape Haze Area Chamber of Commerce, was the first to speak in opposition.
“If we’re going to use the last cent,” Mauer urged the commissioners, “it needs to go to smart marketing.”
Mike McFarland of the Palm Island Resort and the Englewood-Cape Haze chamber, also was opposed.
“My greatest concern about using the fifth cent is that we’re mortgaging our future,” he said.
The future of Charlotte Sports Park, however, appears to have spring training with the Devil Rays in it.
You can e-mail John Fineran at firstname.lastname@example.org