Osceola will whiff on spring-training deal with Nationals

It's good to be a professional sports team owner in the rockin' US of A.

There's a gravy train full of free money out there. All you have to do is find some pliable partners to go along for the ride.

All aboard, Osceola County!

Smitten by the Washington Nationals, the Osceola County Commission is considering signing off on a $98 million spring-training facility. It's a great deal for the Nationals, since they won't have to kick in a cent. The Nationals also would hold naming rights to the stadium and keep revenue from ticket sales, parking and concessions.

The proposed deal makes no mention of building a statute honoring Bryce Harper and having all the county commissioners genuflect at the site on Tuesday afternoons, but I am sure that can be arranged.

"We'll be a great community partner for many years to come," Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said recently.

I wonder if that means the Nationals will be willing to cut a check to save the county from financial ruin, because that's where this one-way gravy train is heading.

Since it's hard to come up with $98 million in a rainy-day piggy-bank fund, Osceola would have to commit $174.8 million in tourist tax money from 2014 to 2044. Now project another $60 million for interest. And the county could also be on the hook for $1 million a year for capital improvements, so that's another $30 million.

I'm not an economist, and I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but even a financial slowpoke like me can figure out this is horrific deal. To further underscore this boondoggle, we're talking about a team that will play no more than 17 home spring-training games in Osceola County.

"This is potentially a catastrophic deal for Osceola County," said Mark Miller, owner of Arabian Nights. "There is no promise on the return. They have no skin in the game."

It's a game, all right. One that involves sports owners doing one of two things: threatening to leave if communities don't build them a stadium. Promising to come if communities build them a stadium.

Osceola County lost out on the Houston Astros, a team bolting from Kissimmee's Heritage Park for better digs in South Florida. The Nationals have played spring home games at Space Coast Stadium in Viera since 2005 and have a lease with Brevard County through November 2017, but they want to break that lease so they can play in better digs. File that move under the "great community partner" profile that Lerner is touting.

They are playing their trump/chump card with Osceola.

Right now it's a tossup on how the final vote will go on Monday. The County Commission initially rejected the proposal 3-2, meaning any swing vote could implode Osceola's future.

Supporters are basing the success of the project on pie-in-the-sky numbers in which thousands of people flock from all over the country to see the Nationals play, plenty of heads in beds and other leisurely spending.

But estimates prepared by the county's staff say that Osceola faces a shortfall of as much as $7 million per year for its convention and visitors bureau. That will blow up any chances of improvements at venues like the Silver Spurs Arena and Austin Tindall Regional Park.

I don't mean to pick on the Nationals. The Atlanta Falcons plan on bulldozing Friendship Baptist Church to build a new $1 billion stadium. So what if it's a 151-year-old church founded by former slaves, Matty Ryan and the boys' need new digs! The deal remains contingent on nearby Mount Vernon Baptist Church taking some walk-away money too, after Friendship Baptist agreed to $19.5 million payout. The city has been doing much of the dirty bidding on the Falcons' behalf.

Closer to home, the strong promise of an MLS franchise exists after a deal was approved for a new soccer stadium in Downtown Orlando. It involves using $20 million in tourist-tax dollars. Beyond strong local interest, the hope that tourists will hop on over to Orlando as part of the economic-impact model.

I truly hope that works out for this community, but I'm not waving any pompoms until I see all those boys from Brazil passing through the gates at MCO.

At least the Orlando City Lions have some skin in the game — about $100 million between contributing to stadium construction and paying their expansion fee to MLS.

The Nationals are promising "promotional" efforts valued at $650,000 a year on top of paying a yearly lease of $500,000 — about $250,000 less than the team paid in Viera.

Big whoop.

The gravy train is rolling into Osceola. Let's hope enough people over there have the good sense to derail the ride.

Read George Díaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@tribune.com

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