After months in the shadows, Clay County's aspirations to lure a Big League Dreams franchise to Middleburg are finally getting the public scrutiny they so richly deserve. Last month, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that it's investigating allegations that the Clay County Development Authority violated state open records and public meeting laws while negotiating a deal with the company to build a baseball-themed entertainment park.
Joe Riley, one of two Clay County residents who filed complaints with the FDLE last fall, has accused the county of negotiating with Big League Dreams outside of the Sunshine law. And indeed, last year the county commission asked one of its board members to privately hammer out a deal (though the county insists this is not illegal). You need only read the county auditor's report to realize why they'd want to keep the public in the dark: This is a sucker's bet, a sham that only the gullible could support.
The deal would work like this: Clay County would agree to build the facility, which the county estimated would cost $15 million but Michael T. Price, the auditor, says would more likely clock in around $25 million or higher. To pay for it, the county would use the projected leftovers from a road-construction bond it took out five years ago, as it can't secure bonds for the project without putting it to a public referendum. (Big League Dreams generously offered to lend the county the money to build Big League Dreams' facility, which the county would then pay back to Big League Dreams, with interest. For some reason, Price does not think this a wise move.) In exchange for this investment, the county would receive a portion of Big League Dreams' profits for the next 30 years.
A very small portion. Between 1997 and 2011, Big League Dreams paid out between $11 million and $16 million to its nine government partners, all of which are in the Southwest (the Middleburg deal is its first venture east of the Mississippi). Those governments had shelled out $219 million to build Big League Dreams' stadiums — meaning they've collectively recouped just 7 percent of their expenditures.
Big League Dreams has claimed that by building this facility Clay County will, with revenue-sharing and maintenance-fee savings, earn $24.4 million over the next three decades. This is fanciful at best. The revenue-sharing will bring in about $200,000 a year. The projected maintenance-fee savings make up the rest — $19 million — and they are as real as Rick Ross' thug gimmick.
"This representation is likely true if Big League Dreams were to take over management of an existing facility and agree to obligate itself for these costs," Price reports. "However, since we currently do not incur such costs, then maintenance savings is not a benefit to Clay County."
In less bureaucratic words, bullshit.
Which brings us to Big League Dreams' last promise: economic development. The company has promised the county that this facility will add $30 million in economic growth. Of course, under a best-case scenario, this will translate into only $150,000 in tax revenue. So for its $25 million investment, the county will get back only $350,000 a year; or, to put it another way, if everything goes right, the county will only lose $14.5 million.
"The payback period for this project would be between 75 and 125 years under the most optimistic conditions," Price told county commissioners.
What a deal.
The county could take that $13 million in projected leftover bond money and pave 17 miles of road or build needed drainage projects or fire stations or parks or a new library. Or it could give it to an out-of-state company. Tough choice.