The MLB team is proceeding on design work for a West Villages project
In what he called “a very positive step,” Martin Black, chairman of the West Villages Improvement District in South County, told the Sarasota County Commission on June 10 that, amid the Major League Baseball draft the previous evening, the Atlanta Braves had taken the time to let him know the team has “engaged local design and construction experts” to assist it in refining a proposal for a new Spring Training Complex in the West Villages.
He pointed out that the communication indicated “a strong interest in continuing the negotiations” with the West Villages Improvement District and Sarasota County, with the intent “to bring us closer together on the design cost and ultimate feasibility of the project.”
On March 8, the County Commission voted unanimously to authorize County Administrator Tom Harmer to continue negotiations with the team and the West Villages for construction of a state-of-the-art facility in the new master-planned community near North Port, Englewood and Venice.
A county news release issued after that vote noted 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.”
Jeff Maultsby, director of business and economic development for the county, told The Sarasota News Leader the complex probably would cost approximately $100 million, given the expense of similar new training facilities.
On June 10, Harmer made public the letter he received from John Schuerholz, vice chairman of the Braves. Extending his appreciation to numerous people who have been involved in the negotiations — including Maultsby, Black and County attorney Stephen DeMarsh — Schuerholz wrote, “We believe we have made a lot of progress to date.” He also noted that the team representatives “have come to the conclusion that a new Atlanta Braves’ spring training facility will not be ready until the 2019 season …”
Schuerholz formally asked that the County Commission authorize Harmer and other staff members “to continue discussions with the Atlanta Braves about a potential … spring training facility in Sarasota County.” He added that “all parties have recognized that, among other issues, there remains the need for continued dialogue and discussion regarding the proposed financial terms of any potential deal including the proposed cost of the facility.”
In response to a follow-up email from Commissioner Christine Robinson on June 10, Harmer concurred with her that the board’s March 8 “authorization to negotiate did not have a timetable or deadline so I don’t believe any additional formal action is required by the Board.”
Harmer continued, “Since these types of negotiations take time, and there are a lot of factors involved in the Team making a final decision on a new long term home for their Spring Training, we were looking to the Team for a sign that they were still seriously interested in the Sarasota County site.”
Harmer wrote that he felt the intent of Schuerholz’ “letter is to confirm the status of the negotiations, reflect their continued interest, and [confirm] the on-going negotiations.”
In March, Harmer explained that the West Villages Improvement District, which was created by a special act of the Florida Legislature, would be able to take the lead in securing bond revenue to pay for the new complex. The West Villages website points out that the purpose of the Improvement District is to provide infrastructure for the approximately 11,000 acres it governs. “The District may borrow money, issue bonds and levy taxes and/or special assessments, user fees and charges,” the website says.
Harmer pointed out in March that the county had been asked to allocate Tourist Development Tax revenue to help pay off bonds the district would issue. In turn, he noted, team officials had indicated they would agree to an initial 30-year lease with two, five-year renewals and an annual lease payment.
Further, like the agreement the county has with the Baltimore Orioles for Spring Training at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, the Braves and the county both would contribute a certain amount of money annually into an account that would be established for maintenance and general upkeep of the South County complex.
A West Villages news release provided in March pointed out that, along with the Orioles, the Boston Red Sox, the Minnesota Twins, the Tampa Bay Rays, the New York Yankees, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Pittsburg Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies all have Spring Training facilities that would be close to the West Villages site, “within easy Interstate 75 or U.S. 41 access.” Therefore, the location in South County would be a good fit for the team, it indicated.
Other options for the Braves
The West Villages option is not the only one the Braves still are contemplating, according to several South Florida publications.
On May 13, the Palm Beach Post reported that the Braves have continued discussions the team initiated with Palm Beach County staff. However, Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker said that as of that time, the team had not presented her with a proposal regarding how it would pay for the $100-million complex it was proposing there. The Palm Beach County Commission already has said it would not contribute Tourist Development Tax revenue to the project. Last year, the Post noted, the commission did pledge such revenue to a $144-million complex for the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals.
Nonetheless, the Post article continued, Baker said the Braves have held out hope that municipalities in the area might be willing to contribute revenue to the project.
The Braves held Spring Training in Palm Beach County from 1962 to 1997, when they moved to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex that is part of the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.
In April, the Collier County Commission rejected a proposal by the team for a new Spring Training complex at a site near I-75 along Collier Boulevard, the Naples Daily News reported, but the county board members voted unanimously to “reach out to the Braves to see if executives would consider other properties in the county.” The Naples Daily News indicated the team most likely would not be interested in other sites, though it could obtain no comment from the Braves.
Maultsby, the Sarasota County director of business and economic development, told the county’s Tourist Development Council in March that he and other staff members had been adamant in discussions with the Braves that they would not participate in a bidding war for the team.