No Time to Strike Out!
Keeping the Nationals at Space Coast Stadium
It was way back in 1948 when the Brooklyn Dodgers started holding Spring Training in Vero Beach. In 1953, Holman Stadium was built and the training complex was dubbed “Dodgertown.” Even when the club moved to Los Angeles, their presence in Vero every spring was as much a part of the culture as orange blossoms and Easter. Greats like Sandy Koufax and later Orel Hershiser could be seen on the mound or Tommy Lasorda chatting with fans. But in 2008, after 60 years, it all came to an end when the Dodgers moved their Spring Training facility to Arizona.
A Storm with a Silver Lining
The same dark cloud is now looming over Space Coast Stadium. Constructed in 1994 for $6.2 million, with another $2.8 million in improvements in 2006-2007, the 33.4-acre stadium and practice site currently has an estimated value of $26.5 million. Originally, the Spring Training home of the Florida Marlins, the Washington Nationals have occupied the facility since 2005 and have contracted to make annual $765,000 payments through March 2013.
The Nationals sold 79,000 tickets in the 2010 season, but slumped in 2011. In a Washington Post interview Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said the Nationals will stay in Viera “at least the next couple years for sure” as they continue to gather information. Lerner commented, “We would absolutely prefer to stay in Florida” but hinted strongly that there may be more appealing options in Arizona. He continued, “Viera has been wonderful as a town and the government has been wonderful.”
Nevertheless some issues remain.
An Outspoken Advocate
One notable voice being raised to keep MLB Spring Training in Brevard is entrepreneur and philanthropist Tom Wasdin, former president of Cocoa Expo Inc. and the Florida AAU. He also was chairman of the Brevard County Tourist Development Council. He candidly admits, “I am a baseball fan and I think that having a Major League Team brings a lot to Florida’s Space Coast.”
But with the sage perspective of a godfather he continues, “I believe the Nationals want to stay on the Space Coast, if everything is equal. We have to remember that they are a business for profit and they will do what is best for them for the long-term. It has to make financial sense for them to stay. If they get a better deal someplace else, they will do, as all prudent business people will do – leave. This is not an emotional issue for them; it is a business decision.”
Focusing on the key issue he concludes, “The question is, do we want to make the investment it will take to keep them here? We paid the price to get the Marlins. Was it worth it? Will the Nationals be worth the cost it takes to keep them? I am not an advocate to keep the Nationals. I am an advocate to do what is best for Brevard County and the community. This should be a decision based on factual information and knowledge.”
Finding the Win-Win Scenario
Howard Tipton, Brevard’s County Manager said, “I believe Brevard County would very much like to continue to be the home of Spring Training for the Washington Nationals.”
“The key issue,” he explained, “centers on travel time to other stadiums. In our discussions with the Nationals, that is really the only concern they have presented.” Most of the teams they play conduct their Spring Training in Central Florida or on the West Coast. He added, “We are in conversation with some southeast Florida communities [such as Jupiter where the Florida Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals train] exploring anything we can jointly do to keep Major League Baseball Spring Training on the east coast of Florida.”
“The County continues to make annual improvements/repairs to the stadium so the facility itself is in good shape. We will pay off the debt on the Stadium (financed through tourist tax funds) in 2013. Plus, we are reviewing their current request for stadium improvements and will work this fall to have everything done by the start of 2012 Spring Training.”
Tipton then echoed the sentiment of Wasdin and others, “Probably the first and most important thing our community can do is show up and support the Nationals during Spring Training. Showing community support and interest goes a long way. The Nationals are building a better product each year and next season could be an exciting one if everyone stays healthy.”