County Commission votes unanimously to proceed with negotiations on new Spring Training facility for the team
“Cautionary excitement” was how Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson termed it just before the board voted unanimously this week to authorize County Administrator Tom Harmer to continue negotiating terms with the West Villages and the Atlanta Braves for the funding, design and construction of a state-of-the-art spring training destination in the new master-planned community near North Port, Englewood and Venice.
A county news release issued just after the March 8 vote says, “The proposed campus is envisioned to have training facilities, practice fields and a 7,500-seat stadium” on a site encompassing 100 to 150 acres with direct access to U.S. 41 and West Villages Parkway.
Robinson made the motion, noting, “I remember when we were talking about the relocation of the [Baltimore] Orioles [to Sarasota], and there was a lot of ‘What about us in South County?’” She added, “It was just a matter of time, as population filled in” in South County.
After seconding the motion, Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out that because the negotiations focus on using county Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue, “This isn’t going to affect [taxpayers]. … I’ve always been an advocate of using those [TDT] funds to build things” that can be used by the public as well as specific entities. “I think this is something well worth pursuing.”
Then Commissioner Carolyn Mason said she just wanted “to let the public know this is a process. It’s not cut and dry, and, as they say, ‘The devil’s in the details’ … That’s what negotiating is all about.”
“This is a very, very big deal if it happens,” Chair Al Maio added.
In the news release, Braves President John Schuerholz said the organization is “excited and appreciative that West Villages and Sarasota County are working with us to potentially secure a beautiful, state-of-the-art, future spring training location for the Braves.”
The Braves would be relocating from their Spring Training home at Champion Field in Lake Buena Vista, which opened in 1997, according to the team’s website.
Having a Major League Baseball presence in South County “would further Sarasota County’s reputation as a sports tourism destination,” Jeff Maultsby, the county’s director of business and economic development, added in the release.
Harmer explained to the board during its March 8 regular meeting in Venice that the West Villages would take the lead in securing bond revenue to pay for the project, and it would oversee the design of the stadium. The county, he continued, has been asked to allocate TDT revenue set aside for development purposes to help pay off the bonds. In turn, he explained, the team says it would agree to an initial 30-year lease with two, five-year renewals and an annual lease payment.
The West Villages also can apply for state funding established to help with Spring Training projects, Harmer noted. That money would be used to help with the debt service on the bond, he told the board.
Additionally, the Braves and the county each would contribute a certain amount of funds annually into an account established for maintenance and general upkeep of the stadium.
The proposed site of the complex — in the new commercial core of West Villages — is adjacent to the State College of Florida-Venice campus and a future Sarasota Memorial Hospital 28-acre medical and wellness complex, the county news release points out. The community is within 15 minutes of the Gulf of Mexico beaches, “historic downtown Venice and access to the wild and scenic Myakka River,” the release notes.
After the board vote, Harmer told the commissioners that someone earlier in the morning asked him, “‘So the Braves are coming?’” He added, “That’s a little premature. … We believe there is an acceptable site here. … But [there are] a lot of steps left.”
West Villages’ response
In the news release, West Villages General Manager Martin Black said, “The opportunity to provide the Braves with a world-class home for spring training matches our desire to create an inter-generational destination focused on an active lifestyle to make this possible.” He added in the release. “We think this part of the Suncoast is ideally suited for the Braves [who] are an icon in ‘America’s sport’ and reflect the quality and values that the community will welcome and support. Our entire region will benefit from the dynamic economic impact.”
The news release also explains that Main Street Ranchlands LLLP, the commercial developer in West Villages, and the Sembler Co. announced a joint venture to develop the Marketplace at Coastamar in West Villages. “This is the first commercial opportunity in this rapidly growing master-planned community,” the release notes. It is being designed as a shopping, dining and entertainment destination with a scheduled opening in 2018.
“The area surrounding the proposed spring training campus consists of four premier neighborhoods, selling more than 700 new homes annually — accounting for over 40 percent of new home sales in Sarasota County,” the release points out. It is “a strong pre-retiree/retiree and family market that enjoys high household disposable income,” the release continues. Regionally, this is centrally located, the release notes, with the Spring Training complexes of the Red Sox, Twins and Rays to the south and the Orioles, Pirates, Yankees, Blue Jays and Phillies to the north, “all within easy Interstate 75 or U.S. 41 access.”
Planning to move
In late September 2015, Pinellas County leaders announced a proposal from the Braves — who were working with a Tampa Bay developer — for a stadium, arena, practice fields and hotel rooms on the former Toytown landfill as part of a new Spring Training complex, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Pinellas County leaders ranked the plan first out of three competing bids for the 240-acre site; the landfill has been closed since 1983. In the proposal, the Braves even suggested the possibility of accommodating another Major League Baseball team at the facilities.
The plan called for a $662-million investment to create a destination for amateur and professional sports that would cater to “elite youth athletes” after Spring Training season ended, the Times wrote. The goal was to open the new stadium by 2018, the paper reported.
However, the proposal ultimately was doomed by an initiative of the Tampa Bay Rays to find a new stadium site.