By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Charlotte County gives the team what it wants, likely leading to a spring training move in 2009.
PORT CHARLOTTE - The Devil Rays' move south for spring training is almost certain after a decision Tuesday by the Charlotte County Commission.
The group tentatively agreed to spend more than $15-million in tourist tax dollars to renovate a stadium and lure the Rays to Port Charlotte beginning in 2009.
The move would leave St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field without a spring training team for the first time in six decades.
Charlotte County commissioners said the Rays' contributions - $4-million for stadium improvements and another $150,000 per year in maintenance - were too good to pass up.
"This is perhaps the most generous baseball related offer that I have ever seen being made to a local government," said Commissioner Adam Cummings, who earlier had expressed reservations about the deal.
The commission consensus came over the strong objections of local hoteliers, who believed the tax money could be better spent on marketing to potential visitors.
Dissent from any commissioner would have effectively killed the proposal.
The commission set a public hearing Sept. 12 to formally increase the tourism hotel tax - a vote officials said amounts to a formality.
Then the county faces an Oct. 1 deadline to apply for an $8-million state grant toward stadium renovations that would keep the Rays in Charlotte County through 2029. The Rays and Charlotte County officials said they are confident the county will receive the money.
If all goes as planned, the state would award the money in January 2007. Renovations on the outdated Charlotte Sports Park would start soon afterward and take 18 months, and the Rays would move spring training there in February 2009.
"We're excited to be part of this community and be able to get things going," said Michael Kalt, Rays senior vice president for development and business affairs.
Rays officials say the move will help them broaden the team's market.
Kalt attempted to placate the Charlotte tourist industry on Tuesday, saying the team will provide free advertising space at the spring training facility, Tropicana Field and in the Rays' game programs to help market Charlotte County.
The team would also consider offsetting losses in county revenue while the baseball complex is undergoing 18 months worth of renovations. The space is now used for local baseball tournaments and other community events.
"That shows good faith. We're not used to that," said Commissioner Tom D'Aprile, referring to the county's failed partnership with the major league Texas Rangers, which ended four years ago.
Tourism leaders spoke against the plan to lure the Rays, saying using tourist tax money to fund stadium renovations was wrong. The $15-million in county money would come from the last two one-cent increments of tourist hotel tax allowed by state law. It would be levied for 22 years.
"We're mortgaging the future of Charlotte County," said Karen Mauer, the president of the Englewood Chamber of Commerce.
Other residents praised the deal, saying the Devil Rays are a perfect fit for the area.
"No other team has offered to do as much," said one speaker, Rex Rowley.
The Rays would put Charlotte County on the map, said Jerry Wilson, who works with the Charlotte County fair. Using the tourist tax dollars to market the area won't do any good, Wilson said, "if there's nothing to bring the tourists in."
The Rays have spent each spring training at Progress Energy Park at Al Lang Field 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 says the city would not oppose the move. If the Rays in fact 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."