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Senate passes bill to ease Astros, Nationals path to West Palm Beach for spring training

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The Senate has passed a Palm Beach County local bill — HB 1213 sponsored by state Rep. Lori Berman — that serves as a key component of a multi-layered arrangement between state and local governments in their quest to land the spring training operations of the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals of Major League Baseball.

Back in February we reported on how the Nats inked an advocacy deal with uber lobbyist Brian Ballard, who has deep ties to the area. Both parties were seeking an amendment to state conservation easement rules governing the West Palm Beach Water Catchment Area, which currently prevents development on an area near the Grassy Waters Preserve, which abuts the Loxahatchee River.

The City of West Palm Beach did its part to help along the Grapefruit League endeavor, approving the concept for a stadium on the site currently contemplated in Berman’s bill back in early February.

With the passage of the bill in the Senate — a stand-alone bill without an upper-chamber companion, common in local affairs bills — by a margin of 40-0, the deal is another step closer to breaking ground in time for 2017 Spring Training. Supporters hope to open the facility by January of that year.

The stadium will cost about $135 million to build.

Today’s final approval to send the bill to the Governor’s Office caps off a complex multi-jurisdictional process shepherded by Ballard in the Legislature. It included an intra-local agreement between the City of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County to swap land in downtown West Palm — now ceded to the city — in exchange for the land near the Grassy Waters Preserve.

The county will issue millions in bonds to finance the construction project, leveraging a county bed tax on hotel and motel stays. The bonds, and hence the funding, could be final as soon as September.

Under a working agreement currently governing the process, the Astros and Nationals would train in West Palm Beach for 30 years, from 2017 until 2047.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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