Deal on new Rays training site gets nod

Charlotte County commissioners tentatively agreed to spend $15-million on stadium improvements to accommodate the Devil Rays.

Published August 22, 2006

PORT CHARLOTTE - The Tampa Bay Devil Rays cleared a major hurdle Tuesday in the team’s quest to move spring training from St. Petersburg to Charlotte County.

The Charlotte County Commission tentatively agreed to spend more than $15-million in tourist tax dollars to lure the Rays to Port Charlotte beginning in 2009. The consensus came despite the strong objections of local hoteliers who believed the tax money could be better spent on tourist marketing.

County commissioners said Tuesday that the Rays will serve a greater public good.

The county will apply for an $8-million state grant that would keep the Rays in Charlotte County through 2029. The Rays will spend an additional $4-million on improvements to the county’s outdated Charlotte Sports Park and also contribute $150,000 a year in maintenance costs.

“This is perhaps the most generous baseball-related offer given to a local government,” said County Commissioner Adam Cummings, who said the hoteliers’ objections weighed heavy in his decision.

Rays officials attempted to placate the tourist industry Tuesday, saying the team will provide free advertising space at the spring training facility, Tropicana Field and in the Rays’ game programs.

Michael Kalt, Rays senior vice president for development and business affairs, said the team would also consider offsetting losses in county revenue while the baseball complex undergoes 18 months of renovations.

“We have every interest in being a presence in this community,” Kalt said. “It’s not just talk.”

The Rays have spent each spring training at Progress Energy Park in St. Petersburg since the team began play in 1998. But the team recently said it wanted to move to expand its fan base. Charlotte County became the leading option after six months of searching, Kalt said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has said the city would not oppose the move. If the Rays leave, the city would be left with a vacant waterfront stadium.

Baker has suggested tearing it down and turning the land into a waterfront park, or attempting to lure another team.

“St. Petersburg is our hub,” Kalt said. “But we want to expand our reach all along the west coast of Florida. That’s only going to benefit St. Petersburg.”