Brevard County commissioners on Thursday approved what Chairman Robin Fisher said is a "game-changing" deal for the Space Coast tourism industry.
Under the 20-year deal, U.S. Specialty Sports Association will move its amateur sports operations from Kissimmee to Space Coast Stadium in Viera, guaranteeing a major boost to the local tourism industry.
The USSSA will bring at least 175 days a year of sports events to the Space Coast, initially focusing on youth baseball, and youth and adult softball.
The association said it will guarantee at least 75,000 room nights of hotel rentals in its first full year of operation, increasing to 100,000 room nights by year three.
The county would reimburse the USSSA up to $10 million for improvements the sports organization plans to make to the stadium complex. Those improvements would include constructing 10 new artificial-turf fields, converting natural-turf fields to artificial turf, and adding lighting, so the complex can accommodate large youth sports tournaments.
That money will come from revenue generated by the county's 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals.
Don DeDonatis, chairman and chief executive officer of the USSSA, said his organization also will contribute extensively to the project to "do the stadium right" and build the new fields.
The County Commission approved the deal in a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Trudie Infantini voting no.
Infantini expressed concerns about the deal, saying, "I really think it's wrong to use public money for a private business."
During a previous county budget workshop, she said she would rather sell the county-owned Space Coast Stadium, instead of approving the deal with the USSSA.
DeDonatis said, with the "win-win deal" with Brevard County in place, he would help transform the Space Coast to the youth "sports capital of the world" through his events.
In addition to baseball and softball, DeDonatis said the USSSA plans to have soccer, lacrosse and flag football events in Viera.
Under terms of the deal, the USSSA agreed to move at least 19 full-time headquarters employees to Brevard County. But DeDonatis said the total impact of having the operation in Brevard County will be 180 to 200 full-time and part-time employees.
The Washington Nationals major league baseball team holds spring training at Space Coast Stadium. But the Nationals plan to move spring training to West Palm Beach after the 2016 or 2017 spring training season.
DeDonatis said the timing of USSSA's move into Space Coast Stadium will depend in part on the Nationals timeline for moving out.
The Brevard County Manatees, a Class A minor league team that also plays at Space Coast Stadium, earlier Thursday presented an alternative deal to the county.
But Fisher said that deal was for only five years and did not include a room night guarantee.
The Manatees have been looking at other sites for their operations, including Winter Park, Melbourne and Palm Bay, but have not been able to reach any deals.
DeDonatis said he is willing to discuss an agreement with the Manatees that would keep them in Viera.
He said he also will work with the owner of the Cocoa Expo Sports Center, just west of Cocoa, on coordinating use of both facilities for major sports tournaments.
"We're going to be his best friend," DeDonatis said of Jeffrey Unnerstall, owner of the Cocoa Expo. "It's a partnership that will be good."
One of Infantini's concerns is that the privately owned Cocoa Expo might have grounds to successfully sue Brevard County over the county's support of the USSSA, which she contends is a competing facility to the Cocoa Expo.
Curt Smith, whose County Commission district includes the stadium complex, was the only other commissioner to raise questions about the deal — including trying to keep the Manatees in Viera. Smith also wanted to make sure the contractors on the job are providing a good price so the tourist tax money "is spent well and spent wisely."
With assurances from DeDonatis, Smith said he could support the project.
Smith's vote was crucial, since the deal as structured needed approval in a "super-majority" vote of at least four or the five commissioners to pass.
Space Coast Office of Tourism executive director Eric Garvey, Cocoa Beach Comfort Inn & Suites hotel owner and operator David Spain and Brevard Zoo executive director Keith Winsten all expressed support for the county-USSSA deal during Thursday's meeting.
Garvey said he could not think of a better use of the tourist tax revenue, since it would boost hotel occupancy significantly.
The guarantee of 100,000 room nights a year would generate $500,000 a year in added Tourist Development Tax revenue, based on an average room rate of $100 a night.
Money from the Tourist Development Tax is used for such things as promoting tourism, as well as supporting arts and cultural organizations and events.
"For me, it's hard to articulate how great of a deal this is for us," Garvey said.
He said it will "stabilize our market" by providing more room rentals during off-peak tourism periods, allowing hotels and restaurants to avoid temporary layoffs.
In discussing, the USSSA, Spain said the county couldn't be working with a better organization.
"They are the name," Spain said. "They are the ones. They are the big boys. They are the ones we want to be involved with."
Most of the money for the county's share of the stadium complex improvements would come from budget reserves contained within the county's Tourist Development Tax account. Currently, the reserve account totals $6.6 million and are expected to increase to about $8.8 million by October 2016.
The rest would be financed with borrowed money paid off through future tourist tax revenue. Fisher said the borrowing would not exceed $5 million.
Among other provisions of the lease agreement:
•The USSSA will be responsible for operations and routine maintenance of all buildings, fields and facilities.
•The USSSA will contribute $250,000 a year for 10 years toward capital improvement and capital maintenance of the stadium complex.
•The county will contribute $250,000 a year for five years toward capital improvement and capital maintenance.
•The USSSA will have to refund money to the county if it does not meet its room night guarantees, in what's known as a "claw-back provision."
•The USSSA will receive reimbursement of some of its property taxes on the training complex if it exceeds its room night guarantees.
•The USSSA will pay for new scoreboards at Space Coast Stadium.
•The USSSA will make the stadium complex available for events sponsored by the county or community organizations for at least 75 days each year and will negotiate revenue-sharing to community organizations for food and beverage sales during those events.
•The county will reimburse the USSSA up to $1 million for structural repairs to the stadium from 2015 through 2017.
•The USSSA will promote Brevard County tourism-related services — including restaurants, attractions and cultural institutions — to its tournament participants.
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