A California-based company, Big League Dreams Sports Park, is trying to convince Clay County to construct a $19 million softball and baseball complex near Middleburg for it to operate for several decades.
The cost, political connections and fears that it might turn into a money pit are stoking an organized opposition to the project. County economic development officials contend it will be a home run for the community, bringing some 40,000 visitors to the park each year.
"I think it is a good project. It's a concept that has worked well in other places," said former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman Tony Boselli, who has been hired as a spokesman for the project. "You get a state-of-the-art park and baseball fields that will draw visitors and bring jobs to the community, and there is no cost to the county on operations and maintenance."
Members of the Clay County Economic Development Authority, a panel appointed by the governor, see the project as a way to awaken development in the area of the county near Cecil Field Commerce Center. They envision hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and homes in this primarily residential bedroom community of 200,000 people, just south of Jacksonville.
The proposal calls for the construction of five baseball fields, a multisport pavilion, a restaurant, sports bar, batting cages, concessions, a playground and administrative buildings, all paid for with county funds and run by Chino Hills, Calif.-based Big League Dreams Sports Parks, which operates 11 such facilities, many of which are designed to look like iconic big-league parks. It builds parks resembling Boston's Fenway Park, New York's Yankee Stadium, Chicago's Wrigley Field and other historic parks.
"No one comes to Clay County, it's not a destination. We have nothing to attract people to Clay County," said Joe Mobley, a lobbyist and member of the county's Development Authority since 2007.
Officials estimate the park will provide for an increase of about $1.5 million in ad valorem taxes in its first year and $7.5 million in the 10th year, as the land around the Big League Dreams park is developed. In addition, the county will receive about $300,000 in revenue-sharing each year from the company.
Big League Dreams would also handle maintenance and upkeep of the park, which would be open to the public when no tournaments are scheduled.
Under the plan before the Clay County Commission, the county would pay for the project and the Development Authority would own the complex and hire Big League Dreams under a long-term contract to run it.
The owners of a 470-acre parcel east of the Branan Field-Chaffee Road and north of Old Jennings Road have offered to donate 35 acres for the project and are seeking a land-use change for future development.
The property is owned by a 22-member limited partnership formed by Realtor Ken Smallwood and Jim Horne, a former state senator and Florida education commissioner, and is near the planned First Coast Outer Beltway, which will connect Interstate 10 through Clay and St. Johns counties to Interstate 95 south of Jacksonville.
So far, about $530,000 has been spent, even though the project is still in the talking stage.
The Economic Development Authority has paid a $450,000 franchise fee for exclusive rights for the facility, Mobley said. If the county decides not to pursue the complex, it would lose only $50,000. Another $30,000 cost was split between the county and the Development Authority for an independent study of the project. The County Commission also agreed to pay up to $50,000 to hire a consultant to negotiate a contract for the proposed project.
"That seemed like a fair proposition," said Mobley, a principal in The Fiorentino Group and a former aide to former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.
Two members of Clay County's legislative delegation, Rep. Travis Cummings and Sen. Rob Bradley, are both behind the project. Neither returned calls seeking comment.
Last year, several economic commission board members went to a complex in Mansfield, Texas, near Dallas Mobley said.
"I was blown away by the facility itself, the number of people, the fact that a hotel was built as a result," Mobley said. "I came back a believer."
"I am 100 percent confident in their ability to deliver a product that will help Clay County," he said.
The Clay County Economic Development Authority recommended the county set aside $19 million in the budget to fund the Big League Dreams complex. There is talk of using money from a capital improvement bond issue and adding another two percent increase in the tourist bed tax to pay for the project.
County Auditor Michael Price, after reviewing the project and comparing other Big League projects around the country, estimated the cost of the project at $25 million; the minimal payback period for the county is between 75 and 125 years.
But an independent report by Jacksonville-based Infinity Global Solutions LLC and Hart Resources LLC, economic development and government-relations firms, stated, "Based upon the results of market analysis and various components of positive economic impact, the proposed BLD [Big League Dreams] Park is a worthy public infrastructure investment project that will provide both short-term and long-term economic and social benefits to Clay County and its residents."
County Commissioner Ronnie Robinson is the only member of the five-member board to openly oppose the project.
"I think if it were voted on today, it would pass," Robinson wrote in an email.
He refused to concede that the building of the park is a done deal.
"In my mind, and maybe I'm naïve, but I don't think it's done until they get three votes."
"It's not good for the citizens of Clay County. It's too big a risk," Robinson said June 6, after the Clay County Economic Development Authority approved the project.
"It's not the government's job to fund a private enterprise that, on top of everything else, there is going to be a bar," Robinson wrote on the Facebook page, Clay County Citizens Against Big League Dreams. "We can't afford this and if we could, we would be out of place spending $25 million of taxpayers' money funding for all practical purposes a private business."
Robinson's attempts to stop or at least put the brakes on the project have been ignored by the other commissioners.
"There are many questions and discussions concerning BLD [Big League Dreams] that still need to be heard," said Chereese Stewart, the commission's chairperson. She said she has not made up her mind on the project.
The commissioners are scheduled to vote Aug. 5 on the project and Aug. 27 on changing the land-use designation for the 470-acre tract.
Ken Willey, who said he plans to run as a Libertarian candidate against Cummings for the state House, has been involved in the opposition, as has former state representative and talk-show host Andy Johnson.
"It is not a good use of taxpayers' money," Willey said. "It will suck up a lot of money."
Another Facebook page, Say Yes to Big League Dreams Park Clay County, is in favor of the project.
At the request of Clay County Attorney Mark Scruby, the commissioners voted 3-1 to pay the Jacksonville law firm of Foley & Lardner up to $50,000 to act as a consultant in negotiating a possible contract with Big League Dreams.
"We are dealing with very complex issues that involve a series of transactions that will need to have experienced eyes on it," Scruby told the commissioners at a July 9 meeting.
If approved, the Clay County Big League Dreams complex would be the first one of its kind east of the Mississippi River. Currently, there are complexes in California, Nevada, Texas and Arizona.
Rick Bosetti, mayor of Redding, Calif., said a $15.8-million Big League Dreams facility in his community boomed for the first three or four years after it opened in 2004. But then, a new facility about two hours away in Manteca, Calif., cut into the market, and the downturn in the economy reduced the number of tournaments held in Redding.
"We had a dramatic drop-off," Bosetti said. "Financially, it did not do what the council expected it to do."
"It's not going to be a huge money generator for the government entity," he said, adding the concept is good and the facilities are beautiful, but the money and benefits promised by promoters have not materialized.
So far, the city of Redding, which has a 40-year agreement with Big League Dreams, has received $445,618 from the company, said Greg Clark, deputy city manager.
The key is to have tournaments held every weekend, Bosetti said. One problem in Clay County is a lack of hotel rooms near the proposed complex, which is just north of Middleburg. The nearest hotels are in Orange Park, about 15 miles away, or on Fleming Island, about the same distance.
According to its website, Big League Dreams is working to move into Florida and Georgia and has its eye set on New Orleans. Company officials did not reply to requests for information about the Clay County proposal.
Big League Dreams officials said the parks are often used for corporate events and company outings.