O's mull move of Florida facility West Palm Beach bids to draw team from Fort Lauderdale

July 11, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles and West Palm Beach, Fla., city officials have held preliminary discussions regarding the feasibility of constructing a million spring-training facility that could host the club as soon as 1999, according to city and team officials.

Having just lost two major-league teams as spring tenants, one to Orlando and the other to surrounding Palm Beach County, the city envisions a 10,000-seat facility located on a 100-acre site that once served as a dump site.

The Orioles represent a natural and attractive tenant as they continue to encounter halting progress in talks with Fort Lauderdale over renovations to aging Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

West Palm Beach recently commissioned a poll in which 58 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay the additional $36 a year in taxes necessary to fund a publicly financed project.

The city's responsibilities would end with construction. The Orioles would be responsible for maintenance and operating costs, estimated at $500,000 a year. The Orioles also would be responsible for underwriting a proposed bond referendum, which would cost about $30,000.

Despite poll findings, city officials think final approval would be a tough sell. Regardless, the Orioles are pressing to relocate after next spring, the final year they are tied to Fort Lauderdale. The club also holds an option for 1999.

West Palm Beach's population is 70,000, compared with Palm Beach County's 1 million. The county recently approved the construction of a facility in Jupiter to be shared by the Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals.

As secondary tenants, the Expos had shared West Palm Beach-owned Municipal Stadium with the Atlanta Braves. The Braves will move their spring facility to a Disney-owned sports complex next February.

The Orioles have grown increasingly impatient with their digs, which now are also isolated within the Grapefruit League circuit. Fort Lauderdale is the southernmost spring-training site and, with the Braves and Expos moving, is no closer than 90 minutes to any other team.

Both parties agree that a referendum would have to be presented quickly to have any chance of completion by 1999. The Orioles also would be responsible for all campaigning costs related to the referendum.

Several other localities, most notably Plant City, have approached the team about moving. Should the West Palm Beach possibility fall through, attention will turn elsewhere, barring a change of heart by Fort Lauderdale.

The same problems that peeved the stadium's previous tenants, the New York Yankees, now irritate the Orioles. The Fort Lauderdale complex does not offer enough room for the minor-league camp. Even hoped-for improvements would not solve the problem. The Orioles are seeking an improved scoreboard, installation of luxury boxes and expansion of concession stands and seating.

The projected cost for the upgrades is about $15 million.

Fort Lauderdale officials had tied their hopes for renovation to a piece of legislation that would allow the city a tax rebate. However, the proposal was voted down during the last legislative session.

The proposed West Palm Beach facility would be all-inclusive. Minor-leaguers would train on fields adjacent to the major-league camp.

The Orioles have led a nomadic spring existence in recent years, moving from Miami to St. Petersburg in 1991 and then to Fort Lauderdale in 1996.

Once said to be tied to the team's current location, owner Peter Angelos now only prefers the club remain on Florida's east coast, preferably in its southern half.

Pub Date: 7/11/97

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