December 21, 2014

Insights

A Home Run for Lee County

I have been very supportive of Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah’s efforts to retain the Boston Red Sox for the Lee County area. Without his leadership, I sincerely feel the baseball team would have moved to another location for its spring training needs. Instead, it will move into its new sports complex off Daniels Parkway in south Fort Myers in the spring of 2012.

Lee County took ownership of the Red Sox’s current stadium and minor league facilities at the City of Palms Park from the City of Fort Myers in 2004 by contracting a lease extension with the team through 2019. A controversial escape clause, allowing the team to cancel with a $1 million penalty, opened the door for the Red Sox to begin negotiations with Sarasota and threaten to leave Fort Myers unless a new facility was approved.

Lee County has since secured the Red Sox for a non-cancelable, 30-year lease by agreeing to build a brand new, approximately $80 million stadium. The new lease will cost the team $500,000 annually with an increase of 3 percent every five years, plus a $37,500 annual
stadium maintenance fee. I sat down with Commissioner Judah to discuss the new stadium and keeping the Red Sox in Lee County.

Q: What are some specific benefits to the community in retaining the Red Sox in Lee County?

A: As a Major League Baseball team, they’re in the stratosphere with the New York Yankees, the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Their consecutive sell-out streak is well over 90 games. That translates to a lot of fans from all over the country attending spring training games. And that translates to a lot of revenue flowing through restaurants, retail stores, hotels and motels in our community. The direct and indirect impact equates to anywhere from $25 million to $45 million to our economy.

Their facility also complements the Twins facility and our own Terry Park, allowing Lee County to attract amateur organizations in holding their own tournaments here. Roy Hobbs [World Series tournament] in four weeks will bring in $10 million with teams from all over the world. And the Red Sox and Twins hold fantasy camps attracting baseball enthusiasts who want to rub shoulders with their major league heroes.

Across from the Red Sox’s new stadium on the Daniels corridor are 800 acres owned by the airport. It’s being marketed to attract biomed and biotech companies. Lee County and the port authority are working on developing a cluster campus, an anchor to attract likeminded business to strengthen and diversify our economy and break away from the three-legged stool of construction, agriculture and tourism. The synergy has evolved because of Lee County’s commitment to the Red Sox.

Even more important is the fact that the Red Sox are really civic-minded. The best example is the partnership formed with Barbara’s Friends and The Children’s Hospital to raise money for children’s cancer and other pediatric medical services. And of course, there’s the entertainment value for the fans. What a marvelous opportunity for children in the region to get a chance to see their favorite baseball players from other regions on the road playing the Red Sox.

Q: With the contract finalized and the stadium under construction, do you feel the commission’s efforts have been worth the criticism received for spending so much in a bad economy to build a new stadium while City of Palms Park is still in good shape?

A: The Red Sox were already going to leave City of Palms Park because it didn’t meet their needs in terms of player development, and organizational structure and operation. With the overall benefit of the Red Sox remaining in Lee County another 30 years—there is no opt-out clause—the community, I believe, now understands we are pledging 20 percent of the tourist tax money to build the stadium, not general ad velorum or property tax.

In a down economy, the ongoing construction of the stadium will generate close to 1,000 construction jobs for this community over the next year and a half. That translates to survival for many of the trades in the area. We stipulated in the contract agreement that no less than 65 percent have to come from the local work force.

 

Q: What can Red Sox fans look forward to within the new stadium complex?

A: The stadium reflects the environment in which we live. It’s spacious, aesthetically pleasing, fully functional and relaxing.

It’s designed with a greater amount of shade cover for the fans. It has 9,900 seats with room for another 1,000 standing or sitting on a grassy knoll. We want to incorporate as many energy-conserving features as we possibly can. Called “Fenway South,” it will have the Green Monster in left field. It will be fan-friendly, where they can closely interact with their favorite Major League Baseball players.

There are 20 acres the Red Sox will be developing into souvenir and boutique shops, perhaps a four- or five-star boutique hotel, an area that’s pedestrian friendly. It’s going to be a fully comprehensive training complex for players. The practice fields will be in close proximity to the stadium.

 

Q: Do you foresee the stadium being used on a year-round basis? If so, for what?

A: Absolutely. Clearly, the Red Sox will have first priority use of the fields for the players in rehab getting back on the team as quickly as possible. It’s in the contract that Lee County is able to hold concerts, movie night on a mega-screen where you can bring lounge chairs, blankets, picnics and watch a PG movie. Like at the Lee County Sports Complex, we’ll have trade shows, recreational vehicle exhibits, home and garden fairs. It will be all year round.

Gulf Coast Instructional League teams will use it. There’s a tremendous opportunity to work with other major league teams. We’re going to incorporate soccer fields. The overflow parking will be grass.

 

Q: If another sports entity were to rent or purchase the City of Palms Park stadium, will Lee County or the City of Fort Myers benefit? What happens to the $26 million debt the city still owes on that stadium?

A: Whether the stadium is occupied or not, after the Red Sox leave, the City of Fort Myers is still responsible for its debt. It certainly will help to bring in revenue to the city and the county by finding an occupant. There are a lot of options, from soccer to an aquatic center to potentially another baseball team.

—Frank Haskell is a member of Gulfshore Life’s Community Advisory Board.