For years, I’ve been driving past the former Dodgertown Golf Club property, occasionally glancing over at the nostalgia-filled parcel and remembering the afternoons spent walking the nine-hole course.
Not once, though, have I looked over and thought: This grassy knoll is all that stands between Vero Beach and an army of developers who want to invade our community and Browardize our seaside slice of heaven.
Because it isn’t.
Contrary to the conspiracy theories you might be hearing from the “Keep Vero Vero” crowd, which seems to care about those 35 acres only when someone wants to buy them and build on them, the golf-course property is not sacred ground that must remain untouched until the city deems it worthy of conversion to another of its many municipal parks.
Other than providing overflow parking for Historic Dodgertown a few times each year, that parcel isn’t especially pivotal in determining the future of Vero Beach.
If it were, it wouldn’t have sat idle and ignored for more than a decade, during which the city has been making annual payments in excess of $660,000 on the $9.9 million loan it used to buy the property in 2005 and spending another $15,000 per year to cover the costs of mowing, maintenance and liability insurance.
But it has.
And now, it appears, that oft-forgotten property, which the City Council declared to be surplus in 2015 and put on the market in 2016, will remain an empty, unused field for the foreseeable future – unless, of course, we get an October hurricane and need a place to dump storm debris.
The City Council rendered that verdict last week, when, after four fun-filled hours of discussion and public comment, it voted 3-2 to retain ownership of the property, rejecting a pair of seemingly fair, $2.4 million offers from an award-winning, certified-green developer and Indian River County, which owns the adjacent, 72-acre Historic Dodgertown complex.
The developer – a partnership between Lakeland-area builder Mark Hulbert and retired sports-car driver Terry Bortscheller of Vero Beach – wants to create an urban market containing a hotel, restaurants, office buildings and plenty of green space that would give the place a park-like feel.
The county, which didn’t come forward with a bid until after city officials were seriously considering the developer’s offer, wants the land for an overflow parking area to accommodate big-crowd events at Historic Dodgertown.
In fact, county officials say they need the parcel to enhance their pitch to Major League Baseball, which they hope will take over Historic Dodgertown’s operations from former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, whose five-way partnership has run the longtime spring-training facility for the past six years.
County Administrator Jason Brown told council members the county needs the golf-course land to “protect and preserve what we have there,” alluding to the $15 million per year in “direct spending” County Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan said Historic Dodgertown generates for the local economy.
“Our concern is that if we can’t secure a deal with Major League Baseball, we might not be able to secure a deal with anyone,” Brown said in the council’s jam-packed chamber, later adding, “If we’re not able to find a successor to Peter O’Malley, the county may have a for-sale sign on our property.”
He was referring to Historic Dodgertown, where O’Malley’s lease with the county expires in May.
O’Malley, 80, said he has met with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred multiple times to discuss the potential takeover, and he remains optimistic. Brown said a deal between the county and MLB could be done “in a couple of months.”
Let’s hope so, because the alternative isn’t pretty.
Had it not been for O’Malley, whose lifelong affection for Dodgertown and Vero Beach spurred him to ride to our rescue in 2012, the complex almost certainly would’ve been shuttered in 2011.
That’s again a possibility: Brown said MLB officials believe the golf-course parcel is crucial to their future plans for the complex.
If so, the council – to act in the best interests of the community – would have little choice but to sell the land to the county, even though the city would be forfeiting the much-needed tax revenue a private enterprise would generate on the property.
Or so I thought.
Then I spoke with the developers, who, in response to the county’s competing bid, said they would “put in writing in perpetuity” their commitment to provide the overflow parking Historic Dodgertown needs for its marquee events, if the city sells them the land.
“Nobody wants the county to secure a lease with Major League Baseball more than we do,” Bortscheller said. “What we want to do on that property will do nothing but enhance what they’re doing at Historic Dodgertown, and it will benefit everyone – Dodgertown, us and the community.
“A healthy Dodgertown is a healthy prospect for us,” he added. “The people who go to those events over there will find their way to our establishments, especially those who park on our property. We’ll not only be compatible, we’ll complement each other.”
And if MLB doesn’t come to Vero?
“Even if Historic Dodgertown isn’t there, our development would stand on its own,” Bortscheller said. “My perspective might be skewed by all the time, work and money we’ve already invested in this project, but I don’t see anything better than what we’re proposing to do with that property.”
Vero Beach Mayor Harry Howle and Councilman Val Zudans agreed, publicly supporting the developers’ offer, which began at $2.1 million, increased to $2.4 million when the county entered the conversation and then was bumped to $2.43 million in an attempt to get the inside track.
The developers also predicted that their project would create 250 jobs and generate at least $300,000 in annual tax revenues for the city. “From a fiscal standpoint, the developers offered the best deal for the city,” Howle said.
County officials, on the other hand, said they would use the land primarily for overflow parking on the grass field, adding that they might install a stormwater treatment area and build walking trails.
Brown said the county would not rule out future development on the property, because it didn’t want to “place a limitation” that could hinder MLB’s plan. O’Bryan mentioned the possibility that MLB might want to build dormitories there.
For now, at least, none of that matters: Vice Mayor Lange Sykes and Councilman Tony Young voted with Councilwoman Laura Moss to not sell the property at this time.
“Were we voting to do nothing with the property in perpetuity, or just for now? I still don’t know,” Howle said. “But Laura found a way to walk down the middle of the road and say, ‘Let’s do nothing,’ which is essentially what we decided to do.”
Moss hinted that she’d prefer the city keep the parcel until voters decide what to do with the lagoon-front property that currently contains the Vero Beach power plant and wastewater treatment facility. That could take up to five years.
In the meantime, the city would continue to write annual checks for $660,000 to pay back its loan and spend another $15,000 per year on mowing and insurance – through 2026.