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Sports facilities need a better business plan

-- Guest Commentary --

July 18, 2012
By Larry Kiker , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Lee County is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on spring training for just one of three facilities, so far. It seems we wanted to be in the baseball business in the worst way, and that is how we have done it in the worst way!

We were told the cost of JetBlue Park was $78 million, but what about the REAL cost? When you finance the purchase of a home, there are "truth in lending" practices. Before you sign for the loan you are given a document that discloses the total amount, which includes accrued interest that has to be paid back. If our county government were required to be as honest as a bank with you as the mortgagee, we would have been told the cost of the new spring training facility was nearly $200 million dollars. Truth in lending, the cost is $186 million ($185,996,919) with approximately $40 million subsidized by Obama Stimulus dollars. Remember?

Now we are told that Lee County is in position to solidify an undisclosed deal with the Twins to qualify for a $15 million matching grant ($500,000 year/30 years). Finally we no longer have to wait for what is next. The closed doors have been opened with yet another surprise; the Twins wish list has finally arrived. Including the debt service "truth and lending," the loan figures range from $93.4 million to $129.2 million. Basing the approximate $4 million dollar annual payment on the new loan for 30 years, the $500,000 a year is going to come in pretty handy.

"How much was it to refurbish the stadium at the City of Palms Park again?"

Another surprise means possibly losing the Hammond Stadium name. What else? You may be paying for the new team dorm which means players will not be staying in our hotels or dining in our restaurants, unfortunately. By the way, we will gain nothing in new economic impact by spending this money.

It is time we STOPPED and asked one simple question. Where does this end and at what cost, honestly?

When the county re-re-negotiated with the Red Sox, they left their old stadium before their contract was up, appreciably they left lasting memories for many baseball lovers as we all hoped for. But just as memorable, an empty stadium was left with a $1.25 million annual cost for maintenance for the County. Businesses and communities were left behind, and the City and taxpayers of Fort Myers inherited a $23.5 million building debt that won't be paid off until the end of 2022.

According to the Lee County VCB only three percent of tourists actually come to Lee County for all sporting events, yet we have devoted 20 percent of all of our tourist dollars to this one cause. In order to justify this cost we have to believe that sports are responsible for millions of room nights in local hotels. Nothing supports this. We have to believe that our sporting teams will honor their 30-year contracts; nothing supports that either. When Lee County assumed control of the City of Palms Park in 2004, the Red Sox agreed to a 15-year deal. They should have played there until 2019, but we can all see how that worked out. Less than five years after they closed, the county gave them a brand new deal; they were getting a new stadium. Since it appears training facilities are outdated after 20 years; if the Sox leave Jet Blue 10 years early, like they did City of Palms, in 2030, they will leave the residents of Lee County with a $48.2 million principal balance, $63.8 million with interest.

Now the Twins may get funded and hopefully the Nationals will fill our last void, to what amount we can only speculate. Now what?

This week it was reported that the National Swimming Center Corporation (NSCC) developers pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud. The relief in all of this may be the comfort that the swim center did not come to fruition, thanks to the commissioners who had the common sense to collectively vote NO when Commissioner Ray Judah was leading the charge on that project. According to Shanka Novak, American-Statesman Staff, April 25, 2010, Judah said that if Cape Coral passed on the project (which they did), that Lee County "will do whatever it takes" to enter into a partnership with NSCC to transform the City of Palms Park stadium in Fort Myers into an aquatic center!

"We've looked at their business plan, and we feel it's solid," Judah said at the time. "They're a viable organization. There's a strong possibility that we can pull this off." Judah said that so far, "our staff's review is affirmative" that the group is "financially strong." This has to rank as one of the best things that the County NEVER DID!

This is not about baseball anymore; it is about spending tomorrow's money today, money we don't have, just like our budget. We have to understand the problems that are in front of us when talking about all three facilities. Tough decisions have to be made independent of how we got to where we are now. "Strike out"' or a "walk"; "sink" or "swim"; this can be fixed. We just need a plan, honestly.

Larry Kiker is the mayor of Fort Myers Beach and a candidate for Lee County Commission, District 3. The primary election is Aug. 14.



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