Cubs Eye Florida Spring Training Sites

Naples Daily News

NAPLES — A group was formed four months ago with the purpose of making Collier County the spring training home for the Chicago Cubs, the Naples Daily News has learned.

And that group already has met with the Cubs – both at their headquarters in Wrigley Field, and earlier this month in Naples for a two-day visit by new owner Tom Ricketts and CEO Crane Kenney.

During that visit, the Cubs toured Collier County looking at potential stadium sites.

“The Chicago Cubs are exploring Naples, Florida, as a potential spring training venue and have been working with Chicago-based Esmark and Naples-based Fifth Avenue Advisors in that regard,” Kenney confirmed in a statement. “Our site visits and discussions confirm that Collier County has a number of suitable locations for a world-class spring training facility.”

Mesa, Ariz., has been the spring training home of the Cubs off and on since the 1950s, and its permanent home since 1979. Earlier this year, the Cubs brought up the possibility of leaving Mesa if its facilities weren’t updated.

Mesa Mayor Scott Smith met with the Cubs most recently in September.

“Our competition is very serious,” Smith told the Arizona Republic last month, referring to Naples. “I think it’s a serious threat. We need to match the competition.”

Smith also told the paper that the Cubs “are going to move through a very quick evaluation between us and interests in Florida to see where they want to focus their efforts. … They have told us they would like by the middle of November to have enough information that they can know whether and how to proceed with Mesa.”

Collier County has never had a spring training team, although it has been courted by several clubs, including the Cleveland Indians and Baltimore Orioles through the years. This summer, the Collier Tourist Development Council agreed to explore the possibility of luring the Cubs.

In June, Lee County commissioners agreed to spend $75 million for a new stadium for the Boston Red Sox for spring training, south of Fort Myers. Since 1992, the Minnesota Twins have trained at the Lee County Sports Complex, south of Fort Myers. The Red Sox moved from Winter Haven to Fort Myers City of Palms Park in 1993.

Fort Myers also recently courted the Orioles as a possible replacement for the Red Sox at City of Palms Park, but the Orioles chose to go to Sarasota.

The visit

Esmark Inc., co-founded by brothers Craig and Jim Bouchard, and Fifth Avenue Advisors, whose partners include Tim Cartwright, a vice president of the Economic Development Council of Collier County, and Naples City Councilman Gary Price, met for two days in Naples earlier this month.

“We were very fortunate to host Tom Ricketts (new owner of the Cubs), his sister, Laura, and Cubs CEO Crane Kenney for a casual dinner,” Craig Bouchard said. “It became clear to me that their objective is to do what is best for Cubs fans. They want to win a World Series. And they want to build the very best organization they can.”

The Cubs spent one morning touring the county in a helicopter to see what locations may be suitable. Bouchard said the Cubs are looking for 120 contiguous acres in an area that “will enhance the development plan of Collier County.”

Bouchard said: “We (the group) will only be interested in sites that are a win for the team, their fans and the future of Collier County.”

The group

Esmark currently has operations in the steel, oil, aviation, health-care and sports management fields. In 2008, Esmark sold its steel business for $1.3 billion. The Sports Management Division of Esmark is a principal sponsor of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Bouchards are principal owners of the Naples Tennis Club.

Craig Bouchard’s Chicago roots run deep. An admitted Cubs fan, he still has a home there after a 19-year career at the First National Bank of Chicago which saw him rise to senior vice president.

Fifth Avenue Advisors is a diversified financial firm founded by Cartwright and Craig Lyon, who started their careers in Chicago. They, too, are Cubs fans who fondly recall attending afternoon games at Wrigley Field.

This is Fifth Avenue Advisors’ first venture in the professional sports industry. However, Cartwright and Lyon point to their experience in negotiations, deal structuring, fundraising and project management.

How did Esmark and Fifth Avenue Advisors come together? By chance.

“Craig Bouchard and I did not know each other,” Price said. “We had a mutual friend that had listened to the both of us talk about the idea of bringing the Cubs to Naples. So one day he introduced us. We hit it off and took it from there.”

Cartwright said the summer months were spent unsure if the hundreds of hours that Bouchard and his firm spent on the project would result in an opportunity to attract the Cubs to Collier County.

“We took a dream and turned it into a viable opportunity, which thankfully resulted in us being able to convince the Cubs to take a look at Naples,” Cartwright said.

Funding and economic impact

The group wouldn’t get into specifics as to how the money, which could exceed $80 million, will be raised.

But Cartwright was willing to say how it was not going to be raised.

“We are pursuing every avenue, public and private, to finance this project that does not raise the property or sales taxes of the residents of Collier County.” Bouchard stated. “I committed to Crane (Kenney, Cubs CEO) that Esmark will invest and take a leadership role in the stadium project.”

Not raising sales or property taxes doesn’t rule out other forms of public financing. The Florida Legislature, tired of losing spring training teams to Arizona, recently set aside $7 million to help any Florida city keep or attract a team. Sarasota used that money to lure the Orioles from Fort Lauderdale.

The group could ask the Collier TDC for a hike in its tourist tax on hotel guests. A 1 percent hike from 4 percent to 5 percent would result in more than $3 million annually.

When asked, Bouchard, Cartwright and Price didn’t say they would make such a request of the TDC, but wouldn’t rule it out. They did however strongly express why they are pursuing the Chicago Cubs.

“This is a terrific opportunity to bring real economic impact to this county in terms of increased tourism dollars, jobs and real estate activity,” Price said.

Craig Bouchard takes it a step further.

“This effort will inject $50 million annually into the county, which would contain its spring training site, player rehabilitation, a minor league team, their minor league operations headquarters and a host of other functions year-round,” he said. “We hope to structure a deal that runs a minimum of 30 years. That’s $1.5 billion in economic impact, not counting inflation.”

Arizona’s most recent study said the Chicago Cubs’ direct economic impact to Mesa was $31.1 million annually. The impact for Arizona was figured to be $52.2 million annually.

There is a cost to maintaining stadium facilities year-round. Based on recent Lee County figures, it would cost Collier County $1.5 million to $2 million annually in maintenance expenses.

Covering these costs is often part of the negotiations a city or county has with the team. Costs can be covered through means such as parking, rent, concessions, naming rights to the stadium, and in some cases, a percentage of ticket sales.

“A facility of this type would be an incredible asset for the community, not only a destination attraction for baseball and special events, but a haven for adult and youth sports,” Lyon said.

What are the odds?

The Cubs went West in 1946. They began training in Mesa, Ariz., in the 1950s. Mesa has been the team’s full-time winter home since 1979. What are the odds that the Cubs, after all that time, would leave the Cactus League in Arizona for the Grapefruit League in Florida?

The answer depends on who you talk to.

“We are still a long shot but I agree with the mayor of Mesa that we are a serious threat,” Bouchard said. “We offer an outstanding destination for families, award-winning beaches and a belief that we can put together a proposal that is favored by the Cubs. Sometimes, long shots win.”

The Cubs’ 25-year lease with the city of Mesa expires in 2016. However, the team has an escape clause, allowing them to pay $4.2 million to the city next spring in order to leave Mesa in 2012.