After more than a year of planning, the Baltimore Orioles are perilously close to losing the modern spring-training complex they hope will be built for them in Naples, Fla.
Tentative plans had called for the Orioles to move as soon as 1993 to a training home, priced at roughly $15 million, that was to have been paid for with proceeds from a 3 percent tourist tax approved last year by Collier County voters.
But last week a Florida appeals court radically revised that timetable -- and may have put an end to the baseball project -- when it ruled the tax had been placed on the ballot in error and couldn't be collected.
The future of the baseball development in the southernmost community on Florida's west coast should become clearer today, when the five-member county commission meets to consider various options. Two likely to be discussed are appealing the appeals-court decision to the Florida Supreme Court and trying to place the tourist tax on the ballot a second time. A third option is to forget about the baseball project altogether.
Orioles senior vice president Tom Daffron would not predict what option the commissioners might choose. But he said of the court decision, "Clearly this is a setback."
Daffron, the Orioles official most involved in the team's spring plans, said the team was withholding any decision about how to proceed until after the commissioners discuss the situation at today's meeting.
"We're not certain what our options will be until there is a timetable for an appeal or a decision to go to referendum on the tourist development tax," he said.
Efforts to reach Collier County commissioners were unsuccessful yesterday. However, all five told the Naples Daily News they tentatively would support an appeal. Commissioner Richard Shanahan said, "It's a long shot, but it might well be worth taking."
Even before the court decision, the Orioles' spring plans were more complicated than most teams'. Next year, the Orioles are expected to move to their third spring-training venue in three years when they hold early workouts at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, Fla., and then move to Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla., for Grapefruit League games. The Orioles have started workouts at Twin Lakes for the past three seasons, but can't play games there because the facility does not include a full-fledged stadium.
Before the court decision, Orioles officials had hoped to stay in St. Petersburg for one season before moving to Naples for spring training of 1993.
Although the Orioles' plans still are unsettled, Daffron acknowledged that the team likely will return to St. Petersburg for a second season and perhaps more.
"That would not be an unrealistic guess," he said of a timetable that kept the team in St. Petersburg through 1993. "But we don't have to make a decision [about returning] until next November. We like St. Petersburg. If it works, we may elect to extend our stay."
The court decision came at a time when plans for the spring facility appeared to be moving ahead on two key fronts: real estate and funding for construction of the complex itself. If the project is completed, the Orioles probably wouldn't pay for either.
Instead, the complex was to be located on a roughly 245-acre site donated by J. D. Nicewonder, a local landholder. For giving the land to Collier County, Nicewonder asked county commissioners to rezone 60 acres for commercial purposes.
On the Nicewonder property, plans called for Collier County to build a baseball complex that could anticipate every baseball desire, a veritable Taj Mahal of spring-training homes. The complex would include six practice fields, including four arranged in a cloverleaf, an observation tower, indoor and outdoor batting cages and a stadium with seats for 6,500 to 7,000 fans.