Developers pitch their sites to host ‘Big League Dreams’

ORANGE PARK – A probe into the economic viability of seven proposed sites for a Clay County ball field project was launched on Nov. 16.

A subcommittee of the Clay County Economic Development Authority met with developers of the sites, seeking to measure the proposed gain from each.

The subcommittee will make a recommendation to the Economic Development Authority board.

“We don’t care about baseball in this context,” subcommittee Chairman Gregory B. Clary told his members, assembled at Authority offices on Kingsley Avenue. “We’re here to judge the economic development prospects for each site.”

Developers touted potential ball field sites in Middleburg, Fleming Island and Green Cove Springs. The Authority paid a $450,000 franchise application fee 11 months ago to Big League Dreams LLC of West Covina, Calif. It has 13 months remaining on its contract to find a site. If the Authority withdraws from the application process, all but $50,000 of the fee would be returned to Clay County.

“The economic impact, if any, wouldn’t come from having ball fields,” Clary said after the meeting. “It results from Big League Dreams setting up leagues and scheduling team competition on the fields; from people coming from elsewhere to Clay County to take part.” The Development Authority would own the ball fields and, after a level of fees – specified in its contract – was reached, would keep part of the fees.

Other economic benefit would come from restaurant and hotel jobs in the area and taxes generated from from page 1

sales and wages, Clary said. Big League Dreams says 250,000 to 500,000 visitors visit its parks each year, staying in local hotels.

The sports complex income would be used to pay off bonds that the Authority would issue to build the six ball fields and a covered soccer field, all part of the one complex. Big League Dreams has told the Authority the complex can be built for $15 million. The Authority would issue bonds for $9 million and seek other funding for the remainder. The Clay County complex would be the first Big League Dreams development in Florida.

Some cities in the Southwest – Big League Dream’s only region so far – have reported spending up to $40 million to build their parks, however, and will take longer to pay off their bonds as a result. Gilbert, Ariz., officials told news media it will take them 250 years to pay off their bonds.

Clay Today reported last week that Michael T. Price, auditor for the Clay County Board of Commissioners, calculated that it will take 75 to 125 years to pay off local bonds “even with the most optimistic assumptions” of revenue. “Big League Dreams projects seem to cost more and yield less than projected,” said Price, who conducted a study at the commissioners’ request.

That didn’t dissuade one supporter, however.

“Forget what you read in the newspaper,” John Tabor, interim president of the Clay County Chamber of Commerce, told the subcommittee. “This is only going to cost $9 million in bonds… and we’ll have to find the rest elsewhere.”

The Chamber of Commerce is listed as an “affiliate” of the Development Authority. While the Chamber is an independent, business-promoting organization, the Authority is a quasi-governmental body – not part of Clay County government – but has powerful bond-issuing authority. Since its organization in 1957, the CCDA’s members have been appointed by the Florida governor.

The subcommittee heard from real estate broker Ken E. Smallwood; from Ted McGowan, executive director of Reynolds Park in Green Cove Springs, and from Holly R. Parrish, Clay County’s director of economic and development services.

Smallwood said he and former state senator Jim Horne, who also served as Florida education commissioner, are general partners in a 22-member limited partnership that owns 840 undeveloped acres on the east side of Brannan Field Road two miles north of Blanding Boulevard. He said the partnership would donate 35 acres – which he valued at $10 million – near the southern end of its one-by-two-mile tract for the Big League Dreams project. He envisioned putting two hotels south of the ballparks.

“We need an amenity to make the hotels possible and to sell the remaining land,” Smallwood told the subcommittee. He said current zoning of the land would allow the development. He said he did not plan for a restaurant aside from the hotels’ dining rooms because Big League Dreams parks incorporate one or two restaurants and bars.

Subcommittee members said they were concerned economic enhancements resulting from the sports complex might go to Duval County north of Smallwood’s site.

Parrish spoke to the subcommittee about two public parcels on the east side of Fleming Island: one a county park and one owned by the county school board. Neither meets the Big League Dreams requirement for 35 acres, however.

One site is Armstrong Park, 18 acres off County Road 220. It is almost four miles west of U.S. 17 and adjacent to an unused cement plant that Parrish said might be added to the park land to make up the 35 acres.

The other is 26 acres on Old Hard Road, a site adjacent to Thunderbolt Elementary School. Parrish said owners of adjoining, undeveloped land would be willing to sell for the ball parks complex. However, subcommittee members expressed concern about access to either site from major highways.

And McGowan talked about four possible sites on his Reynolds Park industrial incubator and one site on undeveloped Green Cove Springs city park land. The Reynolds Park sites – as with the Smallwood land – would be near the proposed Outer Beltway connecting I-10 with I-95 through Clay County.

The proposed, 136-acre Ed Gustafson City Park is at the southeast corner of Green Cove Avenue and County Road 15-A. Subcommittee members wondered whether there were sufficient hotel rooms near either Green Cove Springs site.

Neither site was chosen at the meeting.

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