The transformation of Space Coast Stadium in Viera from a professional baseball stadium into an amateur sports complex is about to begin.
Groundbreaking is scheduled next month on a $32 million project to prepare the stadium complex for use by the U.S. Specialty Sports Association, which is moving its headquarters there from Kissimmee.
But an amendment of the lease agreement between Brevard County and USSSA divided the Brevard County Commission, as Commissioners Kristine Isnardi and John Tobia voted against the proposal earlier this month.
Under the original 20-year deal, the county would have reimbursed USSSA for $10 million worth of work related to upgrades to the complex, which will primarily host USSSA baseball and softball events. The money would come from revenue generated by Brevard County's 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals.
But, under the revised deal, the county will directly pay for $10 million worth of upgrades, specifically for artificial turf and lighting, using Tourist Development Tax money.
By handling the transaction this way, there will be no sales tax on the turf and lighting purchase, since the county is exempt from paying sales tax. That would save $600,000, if the supplies are purchased in a community that has a 6 percent sales tax. USSSA said it would put the money that is saved back into the project.
"It wouldn't add a new obligation to the county," Brevard County Attorney Scott Knox said.Knox also said the improvements to the stadium "directly benefit the county," because, under the lease agreement, the county will have use of the stadium for 75 days a year.
The USSSA has guaranteed the county that its own events would generate 75,000 nights of hotel room rentals in its first year of operation, and 100,000 a year by its third year of operation. Assuming a hotel room rents for an average of $100 a night, that would generate $375,000 in Tourist Development Tax in Year 1 and $500,000 a year by Year 3.
Brevard officials upbeat about amateur sports.Isnardi said she was OK with the original deal — which was approved before she became a commissioner — but not the revised deal. She didn't like the upfront purchases by the county, and she didn't like that USSSA would be selecting the vendors of the artificial turf and lighting without competitive bids.
"Reading through this, I was kind of like blown away." Isnardi said. "I get a little bit of heartburn at the idea of us paying private contractors for improvements to the stadium that are basically going to benefit" USSSA.
"They can basically hire whatever contractor they want to, and we're on the hook, paying them directly," Isnardi said. "There's just a lot of hair on this agreement, and I'm not comfortable with it, I don't think that it sits well, and I don't think that's being good stewards" with Tourist Development Tax money.
"There are too many changes to this agreement," Isnardi said.She also noted that the original lease agreement with USSSA was approved without the county requesting proposals or bids from other potential tenants.
Brevard County Manager Stockton Whitten defended the revised contract during the County Commission meeting. He said that, considering the guaranteed room nights, "this is far and away the best return on investment of the Tourist Development Tax," related to the stadium operations.
He said USSSA plans to spend $22 million of its own money on the project."They're putting skin in the game also," Whitten said.Whitten noted that the major league baseball teams that previously held spring training at Space Coast Stadium — the Florida Marlins and the Washington Nationals — did not guarantee any hotel room rentals from their operations.
Whitten said the county has made $10 million in improvements to the stadium during the last 20 years, "without one guaranteed room night from the Nationals."
And Whitten said, by buying from the artificial turf and lighting vendors that have worked with USSSA in the past, the county will be getting better pricing that it could otherwise get.
USSSA is taking advantage of "volume buying" to get "a significant discount," Whitten said, much like the Washington Nationals did with vendors it used for the purchase of new stadium seating when it moved into Space Coast Stadium.
Additionally, Whitten noted, the lighting and turf for the USSSA operation will be Brevard County's property.Knox told commissioners: "I think the real issue there is whether or not you want to use the $600,000 to improve the stadium or send it up to Tallahassee."
But Isnardi said, while she supports USSSA, she will not support the revised contract."I am not against this organization coming in, and doing this wonderful thing," Isnardi said.
But she contends that the lack of competitive bids on the lighting and turf the county will buy "is way wrong. That just screams of just bad. It's just all bad. I know they want to save a few dollars, But, to me, it just seems like it puts us at more risk."
Tobia expressed concerns about the county losing money for lagoon projects because the purchases would not be subject to sales tax. Brevard County has a special half-cent-per-dollar sales tax in place targeted for lagoon restoration projects.
But Brevard County Natural Resources Management Department Director Virginia Barker said that tax is collected only on purchases made from businesses within Brevard County. That means any purchase of artificial turf or lighting made from an out-of-county vendor would not be subject to that tax, even if USSSA made the purchase.
USSSA attorney Wendy Anderson told county commissioners that USSSA plans to "spend whatever it takes" on the stadium upgrades "to make it a state-of-the-art facility," and was making this request to save on sales tax money, so it can use the $600,000 to help pay for its share of the upgrades."We are very, very excited about this project, and very committed to it," Anderson said.
Space Coast Office of Tourism Executive Director Eric Garvey said the artificial turf drains faster than natural grass, and will help reduce the chance of USSSA tournaments at the complex being canceled or shortened because of rain,It "allows them to maximize the utilization of the facility," Garvey said.Officials celebrate future Fairfield Inn in Viera
During a groundbreaking ceremony last week for a new 116-room Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott in Viera, Brevard County Commission Chairman Curt Smith said the hotel will provide a synergy with USSSA.
“I was one of the people that was sorry to see the Nationals go," Smith said. "But the Nationals and the Marlins probably never put more than 500 to 1,000 heads in (hotel) beds a year. So we’re talking about 100,000.”
The Marlins, now known as the Miami Marlins, previously held their spring training at Space Coast Stadium. The Nationals moved their spring training to West Palm Beach this year, clearing the way for the USSSA to make its move to Viera from Kissimmee.
Smith, whose commission district includes Viera, said he is excited about the prospects of the USSSA for the local tourism economy.
“Just think of all the families. That’s a lot of out-of-town folks coming to visit us," Smith said. "And those folks are going to spend money. Those folks are going to visit our theaters. They’re going to visit our shopping centers. They’re going to go to our restaurants. They’re going to do things like go on sightseeing tours to Kennedy Space Center. They’re going to take ecotours, probably do some boating and fishing on the Indian River and our other waterways. So they’re going to do an awful lot of things.”
Smith said some of these families could choose to retire or move to the Space Coast in the future.Garvey praised USSSA for investing its money to make Space Coast Stadium a world-class amateur sports complex.
“We’re going to have families with their kids in uniforms scurrying around all over this place, taking advantage of your hotel and taking advantage of all the great shops and all the other great things to do," Garvey said during the groundbreaking for the hotel, which is scheduled to open in January . "It’ll be such an exciting thing to be a part of.”