Historic Dodgertown needs old golf course

I’ve gotta admit: I was more than a little intrigued by Lakeland-based developer Mark Hulbert’s “urban  village” plan for the former Dodgertown Golf Course property – a forward-thinking concept that would be new to Vero Beach.

But it’s not worth the risk.

The city must sell the land to the county – because the county needs the old nine-hole golf course to back Peter O’Malley’s pitch to Major League Baseball, which he hopes will take over his Historic Dodgertown. He believes a deal between MLB and the county may be only weeks away.

Thus, the City Council no longer can afford to sell those 35 acres to Hulbert, no matter how much he might raise his offer, which he already increased from $2.1 million to $2.43 million.

The city can’t, in good conscience, sell the long-idle parcel to any other developer, either, even if the proposed project promises to generate much-needed tax revenue.

“I’m 80 years old, and I need a plan for succession,” said O’Malley, former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and, for the past six-plus years the chief executive officer of Historic Dodgertown. “That’s why I’ve been talking to Major League Baseball, which is looking for a facility it can call its own to host some of its flagship events.

“This is a way for Major League Baseball to get that facility, one that also has so much history and tradition,” he added. “And I believe that would be the best next chapter for Dodgertown.”

For that transition to happen, though, the county must purchase the property, which Major League Baseball would need to accommodate overflow parking for big-crowd events at Holman Stadium or elsewhere on the nostalgia-filled grounds, where the Dodgers, from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, conducted spring training for 61 mostly wonderful years.

O’Malley said MLB has a “keen interest” in Historic Dodgertown, and he believes the takeover “is going to happen,” but only if the county can assure Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and his staff that the golf-course property will be available when needed.

The only way the county can make such a guarantee is to buy the land, which the city has been trying to sell for years. The county, which owns the Historic Dodgertown property, last week offered to purchase the adjacent parcel from the city for $2.4 million.

“That piece of property is important to both the city and the county,” O’Malley said. “But it’s especially important to the county, which probably needs to own it to protect what it already owns.”

O’Malley warned that, if he and the county can’t strike a deal with MLB to run the place, the future of Historic Dodgertown could be in jeopardy – along with all the tourism and sales-tax revenues the facility’s operations generate – because he doesn’t know what will happen after he’s gone.

Remember: The once-celebrated complex, deserted by the Dodgers in 2008 and reopened by Minor League Baseball in 2009, was about to be shuttered for a second time in 2011.

That’s when Minor League Baseball, citing heavy financial losses, planned to abandon its attempts to grow its business in Vero Beach and close the facility.

That’s also when O’Malley, with his affection for our community and especially Dodgertown, rode to the rescue, heading a five-way partnership that rebranded the all-sports training and tournament facility as “Historic Dodgertown” and re-energized the place.

He also committed to reinvest any profits from the venture in the business, which finally began making money two years ago.

“I’m happy with what we’ve done the last five or six years, getting this place to where it is now,” O’Malley said of Historic Dodgertown, which operates as a year-round training facility for sports teams of all ages and levels, as well as a site for tournaments, meetings, concerts and festivals.

“I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to continue to have a positive impact on the local economy,” he added. “And I’m proud that we’ve been able to preserve the history of what has been a very special place for a lot of people.

“I’ve always believed Dodgertown was worth saving – that’s why I raised my hand six years ago, when it was about to be shuttered again – but now I want to see it go to the next level.”

He is certain Major League Baseball can make that happen.

“The county owns the land, but responsibility for operating and maintaining the facility would transfer from me to Major League Baseball,” O’Malley said. “Major League Baseball would inherit the lease, then negotiate a new one.

“It’s an ideal situation for both the county and Major League Baseball.”

County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan echoed O’Malley’s optimism and justified the county’s investment, saying at last week’s City Council meeting: “The economic benefit will explode when we bring in MLB.”

The county also could use a large part of the property for a much-needed park on the west side of Vero Beach – something many residents want.

If the sides do reach an agreement, O’Malley said, Major League Baseball probably would “keep our core business” and bring in some of its own, including marquee events that would attract large crowds.

Those events and crowds, however, would require the county to provide overflow parking on the former golf-course property, just as the Dodgers did before moving their spring-training headquarters to Arizona in 2008.

In fact, O’Malley said the Dodgers regularly used that property as an auxiliary parking lot for Grapefruit League games – while it was still a golf course.

“We’d close the course and use the fairways for parking,” he said. “We needed the extra space.”

So will Major League Baseball.

So does the county.

“I don’t want to say the county must buy it,” O’Malley said, “but it certainly makes sense for the county to own it.”

The City Council delayed any decision on selling the golf-course property until its Oct. 2 meeting – a move that could prompt Hulbert, who showed up in Vero Beach with the right plan at the wrong time, to withdraw his offer.

That’s a loss, but losing Dodgertown would be worse.

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