County seeking $10-million state grant to complete segment of River Road improvements needed for access to planned Atlanta Braves stadium

West Villages Improvement District chair says he anticipates receiving preliminary certification of a $20-million state sports grant before end of August

A graphic shows the area (in red) of the River Road project that would be undertaken with state grant funds. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As part of its years-long effort to complete improvements to a 13.5-mile stretch of River Road, Sarasota County is seeking a $10-million Florida Job Growth Fund grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Staff cited $12 million as the cost of the 0.75-mile segment it could complete with the money, with the county covering the $2 million in right of way expenses.

In its application, county staff points to the importance of River Road in the planning for the Atlanta Braves Spring Training Complex in the West Villages near North Port. To supplement financial commitments from the county, the City of North Port, Mattamy Homes — which is the developer of the West Villages — and the Braves for the approximately $75.4-million expense of the stadium project, the West Villages Improvement District this spring applied to the Department of Economic Opportunity for a $20-million Florida Sports Foundation grant.

In response to a question from The Sarasota News Leader, Martin Black, chair of the West Villages Improvement District, wrote in an Aug. 8 email that, “based on a call with the state this past Friday afternoon, we anticipate receiving the preliminary certification letter [approving the grant] from [the Department of Economic Opportunity] in the next two to three weeks.”

“Final agreements are anticipated to be presented to the City [of North Port] and County in early September with construction to start soon after if the elected officials all approve,” Black wrote.

A graphic shows details of segments of River Road targeted for improvements. Image courtesy Sarasota County

(On July 25, the North Port City Commission voted 3-2 to approve a $4.7-million payment out of surtax revenue to the West Villages Improvement District as its part of the funding package.)

The Florida Sports Foundation’s grant program was established in 1996 to help communities and host organizations “in attracting sports events, which generate significant out-of-state economic impact for the state of Florida,” the Foundation website notes.

In its application for the River Road funding, county staff wrote, “The total economic impact of the Atlanta Braves Spring Training from 2019 to 2048 is estimated to be $1,715,360,514 [emphasis in the document].” County staff anticipates the creation of 59 annual jobs and 82 indirect jobs to support the Spring Training activities at the new stadium complex, the application adds.

Furthermore, county staff expects $3,179,453 in state sales tax revenue and $529,909 in local sales tax revenue to be generated by the Braves’ Spring Training events in 2019, the document says.

Details of the River Road funding request

A May rendering shows tentative plans for the Atlanta Braves complex in the West Villages. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County Administrator Tom Harmer conveyed the news about the River Road grant application to the vacationing county commissioners in an Aug. 2 email. He signed the document on July 28.

Commissioner Nancy Detert, a former state representative and senator, replied the same day: “Good start,” she wrote.

Commissioner Charles Hines also responded, writing simply, “Great!” in an Aug. 2 email to Harmer.

The county board members have been on their summer recess since mid-July.

Harmer also noted in his communication that Rob Lewis, senior manager of community and intergovernmental relations for the county, and the lobbyist under contract to the board have been involved in the process “and will be helping to track the submittal.”

The county was unsuccessful again this year in its effort to win funding through the Legislature for River Road improvements. The original bill filed in February sought $43.2 million from the State Transportation Trust Fund. That was whittled down to $2.4 million in March.

The form county staff filled out for the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund notes that the program “was created to promote economic opportunity by improving public infrastructure and enhancing workforce training.”

The county’s proposal says, “The Atlanta Braves will host their 2019 Spring Training season at the West Villages, located in North Port, Sarasota County, Florida. The West Villages is the fourth fastest growing master planned community in the United States, and one of the fastest growing master planned communities in Southwest Florida.”

In an April 19 presentation to the Sarasota and Charlotte County commissions, then-Sarasota County Chief Engineer Isaac Brownman pointed out that West Villages is the second largest master-planned community in Florida, based on the total number of dwelling units.

The county proposal adds that West Villages is located only “15 minutes away from gulf beaches,” and it is sited near regional airports and Interstate 75. “West Villages comprises seven existing villages, with many more to come,” the document points out.

Building a stadium complex for the Braves to call home in the West Villages “will serve the public purpose by enhancing and promoting tourism, providing gainful employment, and reciprocal economic growth within the City of North Port, Sarasota County, and the State of Florida,” the proposal notes. “The River Road Regional Interstate Connector is the primary arterial roadway connecting I-75 to West Villages, the future Atlanta Braves Spring Training Facility, State College of Florida and other areas of economic and educational interest,” the proposal adds.

A graphic shows investments already made in River Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In response to a question on the application, the proposal says, “Engineering construction plans were completed in 2013 and permits are secured for the five mile roadway segment of River Road from U.S. 41 to I-75. The grant request is for the northernmost .75 miles connected to I-75 and Venice Avenue (Segment 2). The permits include those from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Permit#: SAJ 2006-5691) and the Southwest Florida Management District (Permit#: 43031462.000).”

A detailed project description provided in an attachment to the proposal explains that the 13.5-mile River Road Interstate Connector formerly was known as the Englewood Interstate Connector; it begins at State Road 776 in Charlotte County. The entire stretch — to I-75 — “serves as the primary hurricane evacuation route for the Cape Haze Peninsula, including portions of Sarasota County, Charlotte County, City of North Port and Lee County,” the document explains. Altogether, the proposed improvements encompass the following:

  • The widening of River Road to six divided lanes from U.S. 41 to Center Road.
  • The widening of North River Road to four divided lanes from Center Road to I-75.
  • The construction of bicycle lanes, sidewalks and streetscapes and the addition of landscaping along the corridor.

The project description points out that the application for the grant funds targets the 0.75-mile segment from the I-75/River Road interchange to a point 1,000 feet south of East Venice Avenue. “Completion of the project will reduce overall travel times and improve transportation efficiency within the area by significantly improving other modes of [transit] with the construction of bicycle lanes, sidewalks and street lighting along the project limits,” it says.

The baseball stats

A chart included in the county’s grant application estimates the 2019 direct and indirect spending of Braves fans. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Using data and methodologies from the 2009 Major League Baseball Florida Spring Training Economic Impact Study Report, the document delves into the projected economic impact from the Braves’ Spring Training activities. The county’s “conservatively projected total attendance” for the team’s Spring Training in Sarasota County in 2019 is 73,613.

The application divides attendees at Braves’ games into five categories:

  • “Out-of-State-Primary Purpose: This indicates a visiting party from outside of Florida that came to the area expressly for Atlanta Braves Spring Training.
  • “Out-of-State-Other Purpose: This indicates a visiting party from outside of Florida that came to the area for another purpose, but also attended Spring Training activities.
  • “Non-County-Primary Purpose: This indicates attendance from another County in Florida … expressly for Atlanta Braves Spring Training.
  • “Non-County-Other Purpose”: This indicates a visit to Sarasota County for another purpose that included attendance at Spring Training activities.
  • “Local: These include all Sarasota County residents.”

Estimated total spending for those groups during the Braves’ 2019 Spring Training period ranges from $6,318,892.29 for the people coming from outside Florida specifically to attend games, to $22,768,428.60 for those coming from out-of-state for a purpose other than going to Braves’ games. Attendees’ total anticipated direct spending is $31,157,648.66 for 2019 alone, the document says.

The estimate for total indirect spending by visitors and locals is $10,581,538, the application notes.

Additional River Road project details

A graphic presented to the Sarasota and Charlotte county commissions in April shows the areas where River Road and West Villages road improvements are planned, as well as details of the West Villages development. Image courtesy of West Villages and Sarasota County

If the county receives the state grant for River Road, the proposal says, staff expects it will take nine to 12 months to get a design-build contract finalized and to acquire the necessary rights of way. Then it would take about 18 months for the work to be completed, the document adds.

Having finished the engineering construction plans in 2013, the proposal continues, staff “will immediately review and update [them] concurrently with the [right of way] acquisition activities.”

In regard to the local match, the application explains that the county “and other partner stakeholders have invested a total of $52.6 million” into River Road improvements to-date.

Further, the proposal includes a document showing that both the Charlotte County-Punta Gorda Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and the Sarasota/Manatee MPO ranked the River Road project from U.S. 41 to north of the West Villages Parkway as their top priority for support through the state’s Transportation Regional Incentive Program, with $5 million sought. That program was created “to improve regionally significant transportation facilities,” according to the Florida Department of Transportation website.