Spring site for Orioles hits snag USF&G pulls out of Florida plan

December 06, 1990|By Mark Hyman and Peter Frank

A plan to build a futuristic spring-training headquarters for the Baltimore Orioles in Naples, Fla., received news yesterday that, at best, will delay the project by months and, at worst, may kill it.

USF&G Corp., a Baltimore-based company that had proposed to purchase about 445 acres of real estate and donate about 100 of them to Collier County, Fla., for use by the baseball team, said it had decided not to exercise its options to buy the property.

The company has suffered a series of financial setbacks recently, and last month its chairman announced that he would take early retirement.

In announcing the company's decision not to be a partner in the Florida project, which also was to include construction of an 18-hole golf course, recreational areas and businesses, Norman P. Blake Jr., USF&G's new chairman, said the company concluded that the chance to make a profit "is not at an acceptable level at this time."

"Such an investment would not be in the best interests of our stockholders, employees, agents or insureds," Blake said in a statement issued by the insurance holding company.

The Orioles still could end up with a new home in Naples, the southernmost town on Florida's west coast, but another investor must be found to come up with the roughly $17 million needed to purchase the real estate. Under a plan that the Orioles have worked out with the local government officials, the cost of the baseball project -- an additional $15 million to $17 million -- would be financed with proceeds from a 3 percent tourist tax approved by Collier County voters Sept. 4.

"We're naturally disappointed," said Tom Daffron, an Orioles vice president who has led the team's efforts in Naples. "But we'll try to find some alternative that will make it possible for us to give serious consideration to Naples and to Collier County."

For the Orioles, however, yesterday's announcement amounts to another unhappy and potentially serious delay in the search for a spring-training home. Team officials, who once hoped to move into a Naples complex for 1992 spring training, now say the facility couldn't be ready before 1993, if it is built.

Until then, the Orioles apparently will choose among several imperfect options. Next spring, they will train for the third year at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, Fla., and play their "home" exhibition games at various ballparks on the west coast of Florida, an arrangement they might extend beyond 1991. Another option that team officials have said is under consideration is possibly moving permanently to St. Petersburg, which has been seeking a second major-league team to play at Al Lang Stadium since the New York Mets moved out in 1987, leaving only the St. Louis Cardinals.

But in Collier County, officials haven't given up on the Orioles. Said Ron McLemore, assistant county manager: "The fact that one financial partner [USF&G] in this project may change doesn't bother us. I would think there would be a lot of people out there who'd be interested."

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