Osceola County's tourism board approved a $98 million proposal Wednesday to build a dual-team, 120-acre spring training facility for the Washington Nationals and potentially a second team.
The passage, by a 4-2 vote, now moves the project up to the county commission for a final decision on the future of the project.
During the three-hour meeting Wednesday, the Nationals unveiled plans for a state-of-the-art training facility to be built across the street from Osceola Heritage Park, where the Houston Astros currently train. It's widely expected the Astros will leave Kissimmee for a new home in South Florida.
The Nationals ownership gave a presentation seeking to "make lifelong Nationals fans" of Osceola County residents. Then, a video showing Nationals players and highlights from previous seasons was broadcast on a big screen.
"This is a first-class, state-of-the-art facility" said Arthur Fuccillo, minority owner of the Nationals. "It will be the best of its kind and the best in the United States."
The Nationals ownership and county staff said the project could be paid for from the county's tourism taxes.
The proposal calls for Osceola to build the $98 million facility with $88 million from hotel bed taxes collected by the Tourist Development Commission. The TDC has $38 million of cash on hand, but another $50 million would need to be borrowed over 30 years and paid for by forecasted growth in the local tourism industry.
The last $10 million of the project would be paid for by state incentives intended to retain spring training teams in Florida.
"I feel comfortable in the numbers verified by Dr. [Sean] Snaith" said Commissioner Michael Harford, referring to economic impact projections presented by Dr. David Rivenbark of "Experience Kissimmee" and confirmed by Snaith. "We will see a significant economic impact."
The study claimed the Nationals moving to a new stadium in Kissimmee for six weeks of the year would provide $54 million in direct economic impact, as well as the creation of 1,900 direct and indirect jobs.
The Nationals ownership claims the facility will include a first in Major League Baseball: a 360-degree raised deck encircling the 8,500 seat stadium. Plans also call for the construction of 10 practice fields, all of which will overlook a 190-acre lake. Harford, who also sits on the TDC board, voted yes "because Osceola County needs to be more than it is."
But two tourist board members expressed deep concerns about the math. Because the new baseball facility will be paid for by a tax on hotels, county taxpayers would be on the hook if tourism slows. Board member Brian Wong voted against the project.
"If the economy doesn't do as well, if room-nights generation, over the next 30 years, falls below the rate that's projected, then there could be problems funding the operation costs for the facility," Wong said.
Tourism board member George Chen says he likes the baseball project, but not if the county commission continues a history of what he called irresponsible spending of tourism tax dollars.
"Without a guarantee from our board of county commissioners that they will be spending tourist development taxes in a responsible way, it makes this project very, very risky," Chen said.
The county commission will cast a final deciding vote on the stadium project Monday.