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Tensions rising over future of old Dodgertown

STORY BY DEBBIE CARSON, (Week of July 21, 2011)

Tension between Minor League Baseball officials and Indian River County’s top staff has led to a crisis of faith at the former Dodgertown.

Blue tarps temporarily covered up the complex’s signs as a show of protest last week and officials have discussed the possibility of a third-party, a Marlin “Soapy” Immell, taking over the lease.

Under the proposed lease transfer deal, Immell and his recently-created company, Tower Sports LLC, would put $1.2 million into an escrow account held by the county to assure it that he has the financial muscle to take on such an endeavor.

County Administrator Joe Baird said he is “generally”confident that once the financial piece is satisfied, the county would be satisfied in moving forward with Immell. “We feel that’s substantial,” he said of the $1.2 million requirement.

County Attorney Alan Polackwich added that Tower Sports would also have to come up with $2 million for the capital reserve account – an account used to pay for repairs, replacements and other improvements at the Vero Beach Sports Village.

Immell and county officials revealed few details about the man’s companies or his financial ability to run the facility.

Immell said he wants to expand on what Minor League Baseball has done at the Vero Beach Sports Village. He said he envisions 60,000 athletes using the complex annually and for the center to be more available to the public without charge.

“We want the county to be more involved,” Immell said. “We want people to come.”

Although he declined an interview, he stood outside his condo and briefly talked about his plans.

Without going into detail, Immell said he and his family holdings have experience running similar sports complexes and would have the appropriate people in place to run the complex.

“We feel we have a better mousetrap,” he said, referring to the ability to attract athletes and others to the complex.

According to public records, the condo in which he is living was bought for $218,000 in 2008 in the Palm Estates of Vero Beach. When he moved in was not immediately known.

He said he moved to Vero Beach to work on a deal to assume the Vero Beach Sports Village’s lease.

"I've been thinking about this project for some time," he said.

A search of registered businesses in Florida reveals four companies in Immell’s name, three of which no longer operate.

Lake Worth Yacht Sales was formed in July 1987 and dissolved by the state in October 1989. Tour Charters was formed in May 1994 and dissolved in August 1995, and B&Y Management was registered in August 2006 and dissolved in September 2010.

Baird said B&Y Management had been moved to the Bahamas. Tower Sports LLC, formed in April this year, is listed on the county’s draft lease agreement for the Vero Beach Sports Village.

Baird said the money needed for Tower Sports – and Immell – to get the lease would mainly be coming from Ohio. There is a Tower Sports & Fitness LLC registered in Ohio. Vero Beach 32963 could not confirm before press time if the companies are related.

Baird said county staff looked into Immell’s business holdings and has found businesses in Ohio and Oregon, including a cattle company and an aviation business. He has not seen anything to suggest Immell has experience running sporting venues.

“It’s more of a business to run,” Baird said, adding Immell would likely hire people with the experience to handle the sports side of the business. “That’s how I would look at it.”

Commission Chairman Bob Solari said it is Baird’s job to make sure that the county is protected, regardless of what transpires. He said he would feel comfortable moving forward with the lease transfer if Minor League Baseball agreed to it, and if the third-party put up the money as required.

Solari added that, as of Monday, he had not seen any information about the company’s finances.

Baird said the proposed lease between Tower Sports and the county would be better than the one with Minor League Baseball.

The draft lease agreement would require Tower Sports to pay the county five percent of its gross revenue each month. Currently Minor League Baseball pays the county $1 a year for its lease. The company would control the schedule and use of the complex as a training, sports, educational, entertainment, conference and youth athletic facility, according to the draft agreement.

Minor League Baseball currently receives $50,000 a year from the county to be used for marketing the Vero Beach Sports Village. Tower Sports, by comparison, would be reimbursed up to $66,550 its first year and up to $75,000 each year after that.

The rift between Minor League Baseball and Indian River County seemingly has opened the door for the possibility of someone other than that organization running the facility.

Barely two years into a five-year lease with the county to run the newly rebranded Vero Beach Sports Village, Minor League Baseball’s president is crying foul over what he believes has been intentional foot-dragging by the county on improvements the organization says it needs.

“This is the last straw,” Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner said last week when he ordered the Vero Beach Sports Village’s signs covered out of frustration that county officials would not approve reimbursing his organization $50,000 for the signs.

But the signs were the latest in a long list of grievances O’Conner has with the county’s administration.

“Where are the youth fields?” O’Conner asked. “Where are the lights? Ask the county why it’s taken them six months to consider a transaction with Soapy Immell. I’m tired of getting the run-around.”

The youth fields O’Conner referred to are the cloverleaf of fields Minor League Baseball wanted as part of its effort to draw more events to the complex and turn around losses he said are approaching $1.5 million.

Minor League Baseball spends an estimated $5,000 a day operating and maintaining the 66-acre property, O’Conner said – and lost $1 million the first year and is on track to lose another $500,000 this year.

Despite the losses, O’Conner is optimistic the complex can become self-sufficient and turn a profit. “I still believe that place can support itself,” he said.

O’Conner said that unlike a traditional business where customers can show up as soon as the doors open, the Vero Beach Sports Village schedules teams and events a year in advanc.

When more lighting wasn’t installed or the soccer field built or the youth fields constructed as anticipated, Minor League Baseball lost out a year of scheduling, he said.

“I can have a stadium built in 17 months,” O’Conner said. “They can’t put up lights.”

Baird said the lights are currently being installed and should be complete shortly. And according to the county, Immell does not need the planned cloverleaf of youth baseball/softball fields.

O’Conner said Minor League Baseball has had an agreement in principle with Immell for months and yet the county has not moved forward. He said he encouraged the county to work out an arrangement with Immell, knowing that it would save the cost of the fields.

County Attorney Alan Polackwich said he feels the same frustration as O’Conner – but from the county side. The county, he said, has tried to finalize the deal with Immell. “Nothing has become firm,” he said. “We don’t know quite what to do.”

“We can’t keep postponing forever,” Polackwich said.

Polackwich said his advice to commissioners would be to address Minor League Baseball’s needs separate from the third-party lease. “I just don’t see us being able to pull together a third-party deal,” he said.

If the county commission and county staff oppose the lease with Immell and Tower Sports, O’Conner said Minor League Baseball would continue to operate as planned.

“Soapy’s not the only one interested,” O’Conner said.