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Orioles’ demands revealed; Council says: ‘No way’
BY MARY BETH MCDONALD AND IAN M. LOVE (Week of January 8, 2009)

In the days before Vero Beach withdrew its final offer designed to bring the Orioles to Dodgertown, Baltimore made new demands for control and commercial development of the old Dodgertown golf course that lawmakers told Vero Beach 32963 would never have been approved by the City Council.

“If we had approved what they wanted on the property, it probably would have brought back public hangings,” said Vice Mayor Tom White.

“The aspect of commercial use for city-owned land was, for me, the deal-breaker,” said Mayor Sabe Abell. “I do not agree and never agreed with using public land for private enterprise and development and I never have.”

From interviews with White, Abell, and others, Vero Beach 32963 has learned that the Orioles – who have insisted that all negotiations with Vero Beach be conducted in strict secrecy – were demanding a 50- year lease on the 37-acre golf course that would have remained in effect even if the Orioles left Vero, and given Baltimore the right to build offices, stores, restaurants and a hotel there.

While the golf course, which is owned by the city, first came into the discussion when the Orioles raised the prospect of having a Cal Ripken baseball academy on the site next to Holman Stadium, the possibility soon receded and the discussions shifted to other uses.

“We bought the land in the first place for overflow parking for the Dodgers — not for any kind of development,” said Abell. “If the Orioles wanted the land for overflow parking, that would have been one thing. But when I heard that they were talking about wanting to put some retail baseball memorabilia shops there and a pub or restaurant with a baseball theme, and then sell milliondollar sky-box seats, that to me, was out of the question.

“I can’t agree to that,” Abell said. “They also wanted a 50-plus-year lease and the way baseball teams move around so much nowadays they could just leave after five years and then what? The city still has a $10 million bond on the property.

“It just doesn’t breed confidence and I don’t feel the Orioles would have made good neighbors for us in the city,” he added. “They were using machetes and sledge hammers dividing up the land and making big plans there. It was the usual story of them wanting something for nothing.”

White, who was mayor during the earlier part of the negotiations, said the last-minute changes the Orioles wanted to commercialize the property and the concessions they wanted from the city in terms of ownership made the deal untenable.

“At first it was going to be a Cal Ripken Baseball Academy and I was fine with that,” he said. “The reason we bought the property in the first place was to prevent it from becoming too high density.

“Then they wanted a small little commercial area, then they wanted to put a hotel up and offices and stores. They were told a corner of the hotel would be under a flight path, and the county agreed to move the hotel onto some of their land.

“Then they wanted terms where they would have very long-term and complete control of the property without the city having any jurisdiction and that was totally wrong,” White said. “I just couldn’t see doing it that way and could no longer abide by their demands.”

Council member Bill Fish said the tenor of negotiations with the Orioles would have made it difficult for him to agree to the deal, and added that he was not in favor of plans to change the quaint ambience of Holman Stadium and make it like more modern-day facilities with sky boxes and covered dugouts.

“This was a no-win situation,” said Fish. “The folks who wanted baseball here in Vero Beach will be mad that we didn’t do enough to make that happen. The folks that wanted to keep the land for green space are mad that we offered the Orioles the land in the first place.”

“I thought that the Orioles went too far when they wanted to take the first two rows out from the stadium to make bigger dugouts,” Fish said. “Then they wanted us to build covers for the dugouts because our dugouts are uncovered.

They would have had us digging holes in there and chopping the whole place up. It’s nice how it is and who was supposed to pay for that?

“We couldn’t talk about it to get public opinion on it. They would say one thing and we thought we had a deal and then they ended up wanting the sky and the moon. The Oriole’s were the dealbreakers, not us.”

The talks on making Dodgertown the Orioles’ spring training home in 2010 are in a “cooling off period” set to end around the middle of the January. In the meantime, the Orioles have been in a not so successful pursuit of other options – most notably in Sarasota – while the county has been entertaining other offers for use of Holman Stadium and the other facilities at the complex.

The county took over Dodgertown operations on Jan. 1 and has budgeted about $100,000 a month for upkeep.

The city owns 12.5 percent of Dodgertown (the county owns the rest of the complex) and all of the 37-acre golf course. It would have taken a 3-2 vote to get council approval for use of the property, but that never came to pass as the two sides, often thought to be close to a deal, never reached a final agreement.

The council members have never met collectively on the matter because of the confidentiality agreement and city manager Jim Gabbard, who represented the city in the negotiations with the Orioles, was forced to hold individual meetings with members to get their input on the talks.

“I spoke with the council members individually and I was given very specific parameters to work within,” he said. “There were things that were acceptable to some council members and things that were not acceptable to some council members.”

Gabbard said the focus of his talks with Baltimore always centered on the Dodgertown golf course.

“Our negotiation revolved around the 37 acres that the city owns,” he said. “We weren’t going to put out any money and we don’t have any more to give except that land. Our first understanding was that the land was going to be used for a Cal Ripken Baseball Camp. We were on board with that. When we met with them again, that scenario had changed.”

Gabbard said “some members of the city council were not happy with things that the Orioles proposed and the changes, but on the other hand, the property is in the middle of the city and is a tremendous asset.”

“It would have been great to have had the Orioles here. We did the very best we could do. We just couldn’t agree on certain things, and the devil is always in the details," Gabbard added.

Mayor Abell said he thought other uses for the old golf course – “such as a par-3 municipal golf course and some walking trails — would be far more rewarding for the public.”

What has made the process so difficult for the public to grasp is the Orioles’ insistence that the talks be held behind closed doors. Baltimore made no such contingency in its very public negotiations with Sarasota.

“The confidentiality agreement created by the negotiating team of the Oriole baseball organization and signed by city and county representatives has left the tax-paying public in the dark about the amount of money involved and the specifics of the deal,” said Paul Teresi, President of the Taxpayers’ Association of Indian River County.

“When county commissioners and city council members are not even present at the negotiations, one could ask how the proposals were developed and whether all the public’s interests are being served.”

The secrecy surrounding the details of the Oriole’s contract has not only served to relieve officials from obtaining public opinion and comment but, in some cases, has allowed them to avoid divulging their personal opinions about the proposal.

“I can’t talk about any of the details of the Oriole’s contract,” said council member Debra Fromang. “The confidentiality agreement makes things very difficult and I can’t comment on it until all the negotiations are complete. None of the council members have been able to discuss it with one another.”

The city council’s newest member, Kevin Sawnick, remains hopeful negotiations with the Orioles might get back on track, but his goal for the property the city owns is to “make sure it is what is best for the future of Vero Beach.”

“I think we should keep all options open and never say ‘never,’” he added, “but what the city and county need to do now is go forward with any other possibilities for Dodgertown. If Baltimore becomes an option again, great. The people of Vero Beach, Indian River County and the business community still want to see a major-league baseball team here.”

City Attorney Charles Vitunac said the secrecy agreement with the Orioles is supported by Florida Statute 288.075, which states “upon written request of a business, the records of an economic development agency that contain information about the plans of the business to locate, relocate or expand its activities in Florida, are confidential and exempt from public records law for a specified period of time.”

Vitunac said that he received an email from the Orioles attorney Alan Rifkin telling the city that as far as the Orioles were concerned, the confidentiality agreement was still in effect.

“It is a crime and a misdemeanor to divulge any information regarding the contract negotiations and it is still in force,” said Mr. Vitunac.

“In fact, the confidentiality agreement can remain in force for one year with a one year extension under certain circumstances.”

However, Mayor Abell said he was unsure whether the confidentiality agreement was still in force because as far as he was concerned, the negotiations with the Baltimore Orioles “are over.”