Marion County Commissioners threw a curve ball at Project Home Run during Thursday’s workshop.
All five commissioners voiced concerns over the looming March special election, which would present voters with the option to build a $38 million stadium for the Yankee’s AAA minor league team to relocate to from its current home in Tampa.
The total project cost is estimated at $53 million. The five-year tax would raise nearly $83 million, up to $60 million of which would be dedicated to the stadium.
In the City of Ocala’s Project Home Run presentation shown at the workshop, the city requested the county “agree to place the stadium project on the ballot for sales tax referendum (1/2 cent for five years) no later than March 31, 2014.”
District 3 commissioner Stan McClain was the first to speak out during the final portion of the workshop: the board’s discussion time.
“I am not going to be able to support the March ballot,” McClain said to break the ice. Commissioner David Moore immediately agreed with him.
“We need as many voters participating as possible,” Moore said.
Commissioners Earl Arnett and Kathy Bryant also made statements in favor of holding the vote until a regular election in August or November.
“I don’t want to kill it yet, though,” Bryant said as she voiced her concern with the March special elections.
The commission spoke of the possibility of using mail-in ballots in March to meet Ocala’s and the Yankee’s March 31 deadline while also assuring that all registered voters have a fair chance of voting on the referendum.
Though the commissioners raised their concern with the March special election Thursday, they will not make an official decision until they vote on Jan. 7.
In the meantime commission chairman Carl Zalak said he plans to have Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox attend the commissioner’s Dec. 3 regularly scheduled commission meeting to present the details on a possible mail-in ballot. This is the only option that could save the city’s proposed timeline of opening the ballpark in April 2016.
Zalak posed the question to Bruno of waiting for August or November vote instead of a special election during the board’s questioning session earlier in the workshop.
“If we don’t pass in March, if this delays any longer, that becomes a risk for the project,” Bruno responded. He added that other municipalities are interested in housing the team.
The stadium and the land associated with it must be owned by Marion County to be immune or exempt from real property taxes. The stadium would only be exempt from property taxes if the state or county owns it, not if the city does.
Commissioners expressed concern in understanding how the county is liable by owning and leasing stadium back to the city and Yankees organization.
Another point the commissioners raised was the project’s funding and stadium’s ownership.
Most of the commissioners’ questions were addressed to assistant city attorney Jimmy Gooding, after his licenses and purchase presentation. He clarified that the county would not have to own the land but would have to agree to own the stadium premises by Dec. 31.
Thursday’s workshop included an overview of the Yankee’s plan for the stadium, presented by Anthony Bruno, senior vice president/chief financial officer of Yankee Global Enterprises. This was followed by a presentation of the stadium’s proposed location and design by the project’s senior architect Chip Hayward.
The next topic presented to commissioners was the project’s economic impact on the city and county led by Kevin Sheilley, president and CEO of the Ocala-Marion Chamber of Economic Partnership. Douglas Cone, CEP chairman, read aloud a letter in favor of Project Home Run on behalf of the CEP.
More than 25 members of the public shared their opinions and their requests for the commissioners during the public comments portion of Thursday’s workshop.
Speakers were each given two minutes to speak and they were directed to address county commissioners, not the members of the Yankees corporation present. A red, yellow and green stoplight kept order during the more than an hour of public commentary.
Millie Grissom, a 41-year Ocala resident, was part of the minority when she spoke out against the stadium.
“They’re selling this team. It isn’t a Major League Baseball team … it’s a baby farm team,” Grissom said. “For us to be stuck for 25 years on our taxes — it’s just unheard of.”