TAMPA - The Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Charlotte County would not have come as far as they have as future spring training partners without having a pretty good idea that a $15 million grant from the state would be forthcoming.
Still, when it became official Tuesday, Rays senior vice president for development Michael Kalt could breathe one last sigh of relief before devoting his full attention to the business of a $47 million remodeling of Charlotte Sports Park in time for Tampa Bay's first scheduled spring training there in 2009.
"We felt very good about the application that the county put in for the project," Kalt said. "We were cautiously optimistic, but we didn't want to start popping champagne corks before the announcement."
Charlotte County was one of five Florida municipalities to receive the grants, which are payable at $500,000 annually over 30 years and are earmarked for facility improvements to help keep major-league teams in the state for spring training.
"I'm breathing a lot easier today," county Parks and Recreation Director Laura Kleiss-Hoeft said.
The governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development also awarded $15 million grants to three other spring-training ballparks: Sarasota (Cincinnati Reds), Bradenton (Pittsburgh Pirates) and Fort Lauderdale (Baltimore Orioles).
An $8.9 million grant was issued for St. Lucie County (New York Mets).
Kansas City-based architectural firm HOK, which designed the Phillies' Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater, Tropicana Field and many other ballparks across the country, will handle the design of the Rays' new spring home.
Charlotte County is completing negotiations with Matthews/Taylor Construction, which is expected to be approved next week by the board of county commissioners. The Tampa office of Hunt Construction also will have a hand in the building, which will include renovating the stadium, building practice facilities and clubhouses, and focusing on what Kalt said was a priority - fan experience.
The plans are expected to be completed by the middle of this month, with groundbreaking scheduled for midsummer and completion scheduled for 2008. The Rays current spring-training home is in downtown St. Petersburg at Progress Energy Park.
"From a fan perspective, this is the first chance we've had to define an identity for this team from the ground up," Kalt said.