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Devil Rays closer to home

Devil Rays closer to home

By JOHN HAUGHEY STAFF WRITER, Charlotte Sun-Herald Newspaper. Reprinted with permission.

Too bad Little League’s mercy rule can’t be invoked, because the debate is over: Major League Baseball is coming back to Charlotte County.

But it won’t be official until county commissioners stage a public hearing Sept. 12 before approving a 20-year pact with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to bring spring training to Charlotte Sports Park in 2009.

The final contingency is securing a state grant to finance half of the estimated $27.2 million it will cost to renovate Charlotte Sports Park into a modern-day stadium.

The only argument against the agreement — opposition to using a fifth-cent lodging tax to help finance the county’s share of the renovation — never really got out of the batter’s box.

And Commissioner Adam Cummings, the only commissioner who questioned the deal, scored the winning tally when he called the Devil Rays’ proposal “the most generous baseball offer I’ve ever seen made to a local community.”

Analyses by Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Director Laura Kleiss Hoeft and County Budget Director Ray Sandrock confirmed Cummings’ assessment.

Kleiss Hoeft said the pact calls for the team to occupy the stadium complex for two months starting every February as the park’s “primary user.”

From April to July, and then September through October, the Rays will use three of the park’s six fields and some administrative offices for instructional programs, rookie league and fantasy camp, she said.

Otherwise, Kleiss Hoeft said, the 5,400-seat stadium in the 85-acre park will be available for other uses.

She said plans call for building a 360-degree pedestrian concourse, a 1,500-seat grass berm, group areas, a playground, an observation deck, concessions, tiki bars, restaurants and a 40,000-square-foot clubhouse and administrative office area.

Michael Kalt, the Devils Rays’ senior vice president for development and business affairs, said the stadium would be “a true community facility” that will not “place a tax burden” on residents.

HOK Sport drafted the “conceptual” designs, knowing how much money the county has to spend, Kleiss Hoeft said.

HOK “has worked with our cost analysis — they know what we are made of,” she said.

Kleiss Hoeft said the Rays have offered assistance, if necessary.

“The Devil Rays are willing, as part of the agreement, to say, ‘We will pick up part of some of that expenditure,’” she said.

Actually, Sandrock said, the team has agreed to do much more — $10 million over 20 years.

Sandrock broke down the finances into three aspects — capital investment, maintenance costs and reserves.

The fourth-cent lodging tax approved last year will generate $325,000 annually for 22 years; the fifth cent, if approved Sept. 12, $450,000 annually for 22 years; the state grant, $500,000 annually for 30 years; and the team, $350,000 annually for 20 years.

Collectively, the four sources will generate $27.5 million, allowing the county to issue a bond to finance the renovation, Sandrock said.

The Devil Rays will contribute $150,000 a year for maintenance, and $75,000 a year for stadium naming rights.

Combined with concessions and $125,000 from the fourthcent lodging tax, Sandrock said, the county will collect $450,000 a year to maintain the stadium.

He said the county will create a capital reserves fund from surplus maintenance money, along with $1.3 million in interest the $27.2 million bond will accrue over the 18 months it will be banked, before renovation begins.

Sandrock said not only will county taxpayers not have to subsidize the venture, but “the plan is a unique opportunity to inject new revenue sources” into stadium renovation.

The opportunity to “vastly improve a public facility with relatively little public cost” was the clincher for Cummings.

But, he said, he understands why the county’s Tourist Development Council and the Englewood-Cape Haze Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors object to hiking hotels’ lodging tax.

“This is an industry taxing themselves” to promote the county, he said, calling his doubts about the proposal “a fairness issue.”

Englewood-Cape Haze Chamber of Commerce Director Karen Mauer called the penny lodging tax hike an “untimely increase” without a “proportional benefit.”

Mauer said hotel occupancy rates are down since Hurricane Charley. When combined with property tax increases and a “300 percent” hike in insurance rates, the added penny will further damage a struggling industry, she said.

The money should be used for off-season promotion, Mauer said. “If we are going to use the last cent, it needs to go into smart marketing,” she said.

Kalt said the Rays will promote the county by providing access to its season ticketholder mailing list, offering free ad space in programs, and getting players to participate in county ads.

The Rays “will have a significant impact on raising the awareness of Charlotte County and the Gulf islands,” he said.

Mike McFarland, of Palm Island Resort, said this will be the last cent the county can assess in its lodging tax.

“If we give up our last penny to assist Major League Baseball, we give up further recourse if we have an event” such as a hurricane, he said.

That’s true, Cummings said, but hotels and other touristrelated businesses are not “paying the community back for impacts they impose on the rest of the community.”

In the end, he said, “The general public good and support for the consensus overrode any concern over the fairness issue.”

“You have stepped into the realm of statesman with your analysis,” Commissioner Matt DeBoer told Cummings.

“There is no tax in the world that is completely fair,” DeBoer said. “Let’s move ahead and consummate this agreement.”

Coming to Charlotte County is a “relatively easy decision for us,” Kalt said. “We think we have struck an agreement that meets our needs as a baseball organization and as a community partner.”

You can e-mail John Haughey at jhaughey@sun-herald.com.

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