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May 10,2016 - Babcock Ranch considers 300-acre baseball gift to Lee
Fort Myers Press

April 22, 2016

Can you imagine catching a game of amateur baseball in the rural open fields of northern Lee County?

The developer of the Babcock Ranch community and Perfect Game, an Iowa-based baseball training, scouting and tournament company that holds tournaments in Lee County, are exploring the idea of donating about 300 acres to the county for the development of a 40-field amateur baseball complex off State Road 31 on the Charlotte County line.

Babcock developer Syd Kitson and Perfect Game began discussing the idea with county officials a few months ago, according to Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais.

If this idea becomes a reality, the county would construct the complex, which would build upon the amateur sports initiative it already has in place at City of Palms Park, said Desjarlais. The county would benefit from the expansion of its sports-related tourism, not just at the park, but from the taxes and impact fees levied on the entertainment venues, like hotels and restaurants, that Babcock would build near the facility, Desjarlais said.

The county is only just beginning its research of the idea, so it doesn’t yet have a cost estimate for what it would take to build fields on the land, but Desjarlais said a 35 to 40-field complex would triple the number of fields available for use in an industry that generated $61.5 million in direct visitor spending in 2015. Lee County has made its sports tourism initiative a focus of its economic development efforts.

Babcock Ranch is a planned town of 19,500 homes and 6-million square feet of commercial space and public amenities on about 18,000 acres just north of the Lee line along State Road 31. Kitson is installing infrastructure there now, including the solar panels that will power the community, with plans to build the first 1,000 homes later this year. The development was announced in 2006 but stalled out during the recession, and will likely be finished in 20 years.

No one from Perfect Game was available to discuss the proposal on Tuesday, but Kitson said Perfect Game approached him with the idea because it wanted to expand operations within Lee County. With its immense land holdings, Kitson said developers frequently approach Babcock Ranch with building plans, and most are dismissed. But Kitson said he thought Perfect Game could be a perfect match for the Babcock community.

“The idea really fits in with our vision,” Kitson said. “If it checks out, it would definitely be something we would pursue.”

Not everyone likes the idea, however. Lee County Commission Chairman Frank Mann raised the issue during the board’s regular meeting Tuesday, saying he wanted to inform the public about the Desjarlais’ closed-door negotiations with Kitson and Gov. Rick Scott’s office. He said he was concerned about the cost and impact of the possible expansion of State Road 31, including the Wilson Pigott Bridge over the Caloosahatchee River, from two to four lanes.

Mann said the expansion would benefit the Babcock community, whose financial benefits would go to Charlotte County but threaten the rural way of life of those in Alva and other rural parts of northern Lee County. “They get the impact revenue, and we get the impact,” Mann said of Charlotte.

He said that road and the bridge would only need to be widened if Babcock is built, not the proposed complex, so the developer should have to pay for it, even if it’s in Lee.

In response, Kitson said that is exactly what Babcock is already doing. He said Charlotte County agreed in 2008 to not collect impact fees from Babcock Ranch, which lets Babcock collect the fees itself. In that same agreement, Charlotte also agreed to let Babcock use the impact fees it collects on land within Charlotte to be used to offset necessary transportation improvements wherever it wants, especially in Lee County, Kitson said.

The first impact-fee funded transportation spending that Babcock did is to pay for the $1 million state study to widen Lee’s portion of State Road 31, from State Road 78 to Bayshore Drive, according to George Nelson, the senior vice president of planning for Kitson & Partners.

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