Paul Caragiulo and Nancy Detert voice skepticism and concerns, but county attorney assures them that county’s and public’s interests are protected
Both Sarasota County Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo and Commissioner Nancy Detert sought assurances that the county’s interests are being well protected. After hearing them, they finally joined their colleagues this week in approving an operating agreement and a non-relocation agreement with the Atlanta Braves for a planned Spring Training complex in the West Villages development near North Port.
Before the board’s May 23 vote, Caragiulo pointed out that he spent 30 to 40 minutes the previous day talking with County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh about the provisions of the operating agreement, and DeMarsh had told him he did not have much cause for worry. Still, Caragiulo continued, “I want to say on the record that I’m taking a leap of faith …” The public benefits of the proposal seem “woefully inadequate,” he added.
Nonetheless, Caragiulo said, “I couldn’t be more ecstatic for North Port and South County for this opportunity.”
Detert indicated that she, too, had heard much enthusiasm for the project among South County residents. “It seems to be a very popular notion down in North Port, in particular. … I think this particular stadium will be a particular boon to North Port because it creates a destination in North Port.”
Commissioner Alan Maio summed it up: “This is an absolutely big deal to 67,000 people in the city of North Port.”
While she was willing to approve the agreements, Detert said, she wanted to caution her colleagues that if the West Villages Improvement District cannot secure the $20 million in state sports funding for which it will apply, “I’m done with this project.”
Commissioner Charles Hines emphasized that the county’s primary funding contribution will come in the form of Tourist Development Tax revenue to cover the debt on a bond of $21,262,000 to the West Villages Improvement District. The “bed tax” visitors to the county pay will be used to create another attraction for tourists, he pointed out.
(That bond amount, staff said, is the maximum the county can borrow under the provisions of its charter without having to seek voter approval.)
Moreover, Hines said, with Sarasota County lying between Hillsborough and Lee counties, “we’re dead center of Major League Baseball [Spring Training].” Even if residents do not attend games, he continued, having a second team “adds another feather to our cap, our community.”
The Baltimore Orioles conduct Spring Training at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.
In response to a question from Hines, DeMarsh said of the operating agreement, “I think this is a very well put together document; it protects the county’s rights.”
Additionally, DeMarsh explained, the board will have to approve a development agreement with the team by Nov. 30 and an interlocal agreement with the West Villages Improvement District before the deal with the Braves becomes final. The latter will provide details about the county’s bond proceeds going to the district, he continued, as well as the transfer of the stadium to the county.
“We have the ability to work through those documents to make sure that they’re put together properly,” DeMarsh added.
“I believe it’s an amazing project,” Commissioner Michael Moran said after making the motion to approve the agreements. “Very glad to be a part of it.”
Moran added that he believes the Braves’ complex “is going to be a huge economic stimulus for our community, especially down in North Port.”
Jeff Maultsby, the county’s director of business and economic development, explained that the board’s actions that day would enable the West Villages Improvement District to proceed with applying to the state for $20 million from the Spring Training Retention Fund to help cover the estimated cost of $75 million to $80 million for the stadium complex.
The team will be fully responsible for any construction cost overruns, Maultsby stressed. It also will pay for the main scoreboard and all furnishings and fixtures, which have been estimated at a total expense of $7.5 million, he said.
Moreover, the team will make an annual payment of $2 million to $2.5 million to cover the stadium debt, he noted.
The West Villages Improvement District will be responsible for donating up to 80 acres of land for the stadium and ancillary facilities, with a value on that contribution put at $8 million, Maultsby said. The developer of the community — Mattamy Homes — also will make an annual payment of $300,000 over the 30 years of the agreement, he said. Furthermore, it will construct an access road and put in utilities, which have been valued at $7 million.
The City of North Port has been asked to contribute an annual payment of $300,000, as well, to offset the stadium debt, Maultsby said.
The timeline calls for the complex to be completed by January 2019. The county will take ownership of the facilities after the certificate of occupancy has been issued, Maultsby added.
The county also will be responsible for a total of $5,625,000 over 30 years for a capital maintenance fund to cover major expenses, Maultsby explained to the board. The Braves will pay the same amount. The resulting $11 million will equal what the county and the Baltimore Orioles pay into a capital maintenance fund for Ed Smith Stadium, Maultsby noted.
The team will have an option of two five-year extensions of the operating agreement after the initial 30-year term is up, he pointed out.
The Braves already have signed the operating and non-relocation agreements, County Administrator Tom Harmer pointed out.
The team also has signed the appropriate documents with Major League Baseball, Maultsby added.
Digging into the details
Detert was the first to press Maultsby about the financial details of the project. Regarding the annual payment from the team toward the debt retirement, she sought clarification that the money would not be paid to the county, but to the West Villages Improvement District.
“That’s correct,” Maultsby replied.
As she sought more clarification, County Attorney DeMarsh finally pointed out that the county would pay off its bond with Tourist Development Tax revenue. “That would be a county obligation. The county will own the stadium, though.”
Detert then noted that the actual amount of debt has not been determined, referencing the annual payment from the team.
“They’re going to back into that payment,” Maultsby said of the Braves.
“If we approve this today, or down the line, and they don’t get the state funding, how locked in are we, and where is our escape clause without our being in default of the contract?” Detert asked.
“The state funding must be in place,” Maultsby replied.
DeMarsh read the clause of the operating agreement that made it clear that document would not go into effect until after the state had given the West Villages Improvement District the $20 million from the Spring Training fund.
“There are so many people who have to be in agreement to make this deal happen, and then we’re all married to each other for the next 30 years,” Detert responded. “So it’s very important that we get the contract right.”
Later, she asked about the timeline for submitting the application for the state grant.
“We actually have a draft of the application and are arranging meetings … in Tallahassee,” Marty Black, chair of the West Villages Improvement District, told Detert. The application should be submitted “within the next two to three weeks,” he added, providing the board approved the agreements on May 23.
Detert pointed out that the state’s fiscal year starts on July 1. “If you don’t get [the application] in sometime around the first week of June,” she continued, the district might lose out on the opportunity to win the state grant this year.
Black voiced confidence that the district would be able to comply with state guidelines to obtain the grant, and he anticipated having the $20 million in hand before July 1, he told her.
“We’re seeking to get approval by July 1,” County Administrator Harmer later reiterated Black’s point. “So the intent is to get [the application] in by the first of June or the end of May …”
Team and West Villages’ commitments
Maultsby also took time to review the team’s other commitments. Along with holding Spring Training games at the new complex, he said, the Braves would conduct Extended Spring Training — which he characterized as “rookie level” play — and Gulf Coast League games, which also involve rookies. Further, the potential exists for Florida State League games in the future, if the team is able to move its Minor League team from Kissimmee to the West Villages. Instructional League play will occur in the fall, he noted.
Additionally, Maultsby said, the team has committed to promoting and staging special events, fantasy camps, concerts and festivals.
The team also is committing to a partnership with the county, the City of North Port and Visit Sarasota County on a destination-marketing package similar to the one the county has with the Baltimore Orioles, Maultsby said.
Black also took the opportunity on May 23 to explain the road access the district will be providing to the complex. The facilities will be built about 1 mile south of U.S. 41, he said. The West Villages Parkway will provide primary access to the complex for traffic coming from the north on River Road and from North Port, to the east, he said. The district has commenced the design and permitting process for a second boulevard, he continued; it will extend south through the West Villages and then to a point west of the Englewood Sports Complex. The goal is to have construction of that road underway in January 2018, West added.
“We need to do the best that we can to create a positive experience” for people driving to the complex, Commissioner Hines pointed out. He is hopeful that by the time the Braves begin Spring Training at the new facility, people will be able to get in and out of the complex easily, he added.