Cubs Consider Investing in Naples, Fla. Training Facility

The Chicago Cubs are considering making a financial investment in a proposed spring training facility near Naples, Fla., according to people familiar with the team.

Craig Bouchard, who is leading an effort to lure the Cubs to Florida, said the team is a possible investor in the proposed development. A Cubs official confirmed that the team is exploring a number of options, including a financial interest in a Florida spring training complex.

Indications are that the Naples proposal is something of a long shot because the Cubs have spent the winter months in Mesa, Ariz., since the 1950s. Arizona officials are expected to pull out all the stops to keep the team because the team is an economic boon to Mesa and the Phoenix area. Conventional wisdom suggests the Cubs are using Naples as a bargaining chip to get the best financial deal in Arizona.

Nevertheless, the Naples team is making a serious bid. Bouchard, a wealthy businessman who splits his time between residences in the western suburbs and Naples, said his Chicago-based company Esmark Inc. would be the lead investor in a proposed spring-training complex.

“You can’t worry that you’re going to be the stalking horse,” Bouchard said. “Otherwise you’ll never get in the game.”

Bouchard said he is looking to raise $80 million to $100 million to redevelop about 100 acres in southwest Florida. It’s not clear how much the Cubs would invest, but the team is looking for a 15,000-seat stadium, practice fields and a state-of-the-art training facility. In Florida, the proposal calls for the training complex to be surrounded by shops and restaurants, much like Wrigleyville.

The retail aspect of the development would be privately owned, Bouchard said. The stadium, on the other hand, could be publicly owned if the state of Florida and the local government provide tax dollars. The state recently gave Sarasota County, which is north of Naples, $7.5 million to renovate a stadium there for the Baltimore Orioles.

New Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and team President Crane Kenney met last week with Florida’s governor, who expressed interest in supporting Naples’ bid.

The Cubs officials flew to Florida on Bouchard’s private jet, the businessman said. Craig and his brother, Jim, founded Esmark in 2003 to serve as a vehicle to acquire steel-service centers. They are second-generation players in the steel industry. Their late father was a senior executive at Inland Steel.

Esmark culminated a series of rapid-fire acquisitions with the purchase of publicly traded steelmaker Wheeling-Pittsburgh Corp. in 2006. Two years later, the brothers sold their company to a Russian steelmaker in a deal valued at $1.25 billion including debt.

The brothers retained the Esmark name and today it is their privately held holding company for a variety of investments, including a sports management company. The Bouchards are the principal owners of the Naples Tennis Club.

Craig Bouchard got involved earlier this year in what was then a grass-roots effort to lure the Cubs to Naples. Since then, he can’t stop talking about the Cubs, perhaps a sign that the idea of the Cubs leaving Arizona has long odds. The Cubs can relocate because its lease with Mesa and HoHoKam Park has a $4 million escape clause after 2012. The team has to decide early next year whether to exercise the option.