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Florida Governor Rick Scott pitches $5 million a year for major-league spring training

4:24 PM, Mar 4, 2013   |    comments
The Nationals, based in Viera, have reportedly been interested in moving to the Gulf Coast. Photo by Craig Rubadoux, FLORIDA TODAY
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (floridatoday.com) -- Gov. Rick Scott is pitching a proposal to set aside $5 million a year in the state budget to help keep major-league baseball teams from fleeing the Sunshine State to Arizona.

Taking a break from a "Let's Get to Work Day" at Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium, the Florida home of the 2012 American League champion Detroit Tigers, Scott on Wednesday hurled the spring training facilities-only funding deal that he intends to support during the upcoming legislative session.

Along with dedicating $5 million, Scott also proposes updating the state's public facilities incentive program to cap at $20 million the amount a club can receive from Florida for upgrades to a publicly-owned facility in exchange for extending an existing lease.

"We must provide teams a predicable landscape, with an identified funding stream that allows local governments to make targeted investments to keep teams in their communities," Scott said in a news release.

The Tigers, playing in a field last upgraded in 2001, have already started to discuss plans with local officials on renovating the 8,500-seat stadium as the team's lease expires in 2016, said Florida Sports Foundation Director of Communications Nick Grady.

Tigers President and CEO David Dombrowski, noting the team has trained for 77 years in Lakeland, stated in a release he was "excited and appreciative that the great state of Florida is doing all it can to continue this partnership for many years to come."

The $5 million proposed by Scott would be a recurring fund that could accumulate within the state Department of Economic Opportunity.

The money would be available as teams and communities jointly request assistance through the state's public facilities program administered through the DEO. The state would match any total up to $20 million.

Lawmakers in the past have also committed tax dollars to help Florida in its competition with Arizona for spring training teams.

The governor's office was quick to note that they have plated some backing in the Legislature.

Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said in the release from the governor's office that he welcomed the announcement.

"Along with providing jobs and capital investment, spring training plays a key role in attracting tourists to the Sunshine State," McKeel said.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, added in the release that the "$5 million, recurring investment by Gov. Scott will support jobs across our state."

Clearwater is home to the spring training complex used by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Scott justified the proposal by noting that MLB spring training attracts 1.5 million fans annually, pumping $750 million in economic benefits to the state.

One-third of the state's 15 teams have leases up for renewal during the next four years: the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, the Houston Astros in Kissimmee and the Tigers in Lakeland, in 2016; the Washington Nationals in Viera and Atlanta Braves on Disney property, in 2017.

"Arizona has talked to each of the teams," said John Webb, president of the Florida Sports Foundation.

The Braves, playing at a privately-owned facility, would not be eligible for the state matching funds.

While the Nationals have reportedly been interested in moving to the gulf coast, the biggest risk of western flight appears to be the Houston Astros, with their Kissimmee lease expiring in 2016.

The team's owner, Jim Crane, has a Treasure Coast home, where he played a round of golf with President Obama and professional golfer Tiger Woods on Feb. 17. Crane has told reporters he would prefer to move the team to Florida's east coast but is keeping open all options, including a potential move to Arizona.

A study by St. Lucie County estimated that expanding the complex used by the New York Mets to accommodate a second team would cost $60 million, according to TCPalm.com.

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