Atlanta Braves announce plans to make Sarasota County their new Spring Training home

County Commission to get an update on Jan. 24 in Sarasota

A rendering shows the potential layout of the Braves’ complex in the West Villages. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Atlanta Braves announced this week that they want Sarasota County to become their new Spring Training home and that their management is in exclusive negotiations with representatives of the county and the West Villages near Venice and North Port.

If terms of an agreement can be reached, the Braves will move their Spring Training operations from Central Florida to Sarasota County as soon as the 2019 spring season, Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk said in a news release.

McGuirk has been leading the team’s efforts to secure a new Spring Training  site.

Marty Black. File photo

“We appreciate the patience of all parties during this process,” said McGuirk in the county news release. “This is the perfect location for our team and we couldn’t be more excited to be part of Sarasota County and West Villages.”

County staff plans to provide a public update on the status of the negotiations during the Jan. 24 County Commission meeting, county spokesman Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader. The meeting will be held at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.

The Braves initially planned to relocate Spring Training next year from ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, where they have trained since 1998, Mark Bowman of reported this week.

“With the [Houston] Astros and [the Washington] Nationals relocating their Spring Training sites to Palm Beach County this year,” Bowman continued, “the [Detroit] Tigers now stand as the only club located within an hour of the Braves’ current location.”

“We’re quite enthused and very optimistic about the way things have progressed in our talks with Sarasota County officials and our development partners,” Braves Vice Chairman John Schuerholz told Bowman.

A map shows a draft plan for the West Villages Improvement District. Image from the West Villages website

West Villages comprises approximately 10,000 acres in South County. “The West Villages Improvement District was created by Special Act of the Florida Legislature … to assure timely, cost-effective, and high-quality design and implementation of infrastructure for the District,” the West Villages’ website explains. Sarasota County leaders have said the ability of the district to raise funds through its own bond initiatives will be an important factor in paying for the facilities for the Braves.

In March 2016, the County Commission authorized County Administrator Tom Harmer to negotiate with the team. A March 8, 2016 discussion made it clear that the board would commit Tourist Development Tax revenue to the project. The West Villages also could apply for state funding established to help with Spring Training projects, Harmer noted at the time. In June the team asked for more time to continue the discussions.

“I am extremely excited, although I haven’t been involved in the negotiations,” County Commissioner Alan Maio told The Sarasota News Leader in a Jan. 17 interview. Maio was chair of the board last year.

Along with Harmer, Maio noted, the administration of the City of North Port, county business and economic development staff, Mattamy Homes — which is developing the West Villages — and Marty Black, general manager of the West Villages, have been handling that effort. “We couldn’t have put together a better team. I hope [the deal] comes to fruition.” Maio stressed, “This is a really big deal.”

“There’s still a lot of work to do to finalize the terms, agreements and approvals necessary, but this announcement is a major step forward in the efforts to bring the Braves to our area,” Harmer said in the release. “Continuing to expand sports tourism is high on the county’s list, and the opportunity to bring a major sports anchor to the City of North Port could have a significant impact in South County,” Harmer added in the release.

“This is a true public-private partnership,” said Black in the release. “We are excited to be at the table. The stadium complex blends will into our master plan for the area. It will become an anchor for our future entertainment district and complement our planned new downtown Main Street development.”

The planned site is located within the City of North Port, with direct access to U.S. 41 and West Villages Parkway, the release notes. “The city will play an important role in helping finalize the terms and agreements, as well as overseeing any necessary regulatory approvals to advance the project,” North Port City Manager Jonathan Lewis noted in the release.

North Port City Manager Jonathan Lewis. Image courtesy City of North Port

“A world-class professional baseball organization calling North Port home can only help to put our area on the map,” Lewis added in the release.

“The parties to the agreement will be working over the next several months to finalize the terms and move forward with the project,” the release continues.

“This is an exciting opportunity for the entire region,” said Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo in the release. “The potential economic impact for our community could be tremendous. We are looking forward to hearing more details about the negotiations next week.”

If the Braves successfully conclude the Sarasota County negotiations, they will be the second Major League Baseball team to call the county home, joining the Baltimore Orioles. The Pittsburgh Pirates hold Spring Training just up the road in Bradenton.

One more try in Palm Beach

Just last week, Palm Beach County leaders remained optimistic the Braves would focus on negotiations to move Spring Training operations to a complex in John Prince Park near Lake Worth, the Palm Beach Post reported on Jan. 13. “A Braves representative showed area municipal and business leaders in December [2016] a rendering of a single-team spring training facility on 70 acres in the southwest corner of the park,” the Post article added.

However, on Jan. 13, Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker told the Post that none of the county’s tourist development tax revenue would be available for a Braves complex. Baker also ruled out the use of funds from the 1-cent sales tax Palm Beach County voters approved in November 2016, the Post pointed out.