Construction expected to get underway in November
Almost two-and-a-half hours after they started their Sept. 19 discussion, the North Port city commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the final agreement that will allow the Atlanta Braves to begin Spring Training in 2019 in the West Villages.
The board earlier this year committed to providing an upfront payment of $4.7 million toward the cost of the new $100-million complex.
Plans call for the groundbreaking to be held in October, with construction to start in November, according to a Sept. 19 news release from the Chappell Roberts marketing firm in Tampa.
The goal is for the facility to open on Feb. 1, 2019, with the Braves playing their first Spring Training game in the West Villages later that month, the release points out.
During the special meeting of the North Port City Commission, Mayor Linda Yates and Commissioner Debbie McDowell cast the “No” votes, as they have in the past.
“I really would have hoped that this would have turned out a lot better,” Yates said, after seeing several proposed amendments to the agreement fail on 2-3 votes.
The issue is not whether the City of North Port welcomes and wants the Braves, Yates told her colleagues. “That was kind of decided way back in January or February.”
Among issues she and McDowell protested was the fact that their board was the last one to address the final agreement for the new facilities. If they made any tweaks in it, Yates acknowledged, it would have to go back to all the other parties for approval before construction of the stadium complex could begin, potentially delaying the project.
Those other partners are Sarasota County, the West Villages Improvement District, Calben Corp. — the developer of the West Villages — and the Braves. The Braves have committed to paying at least the first $18 million of the expense of the complex, along with making annual payments to cover the debt service for the bond the West Villages Improvement District will issue to cover part of the cost.
Sarasota County’s contribution of $21,262,000 will come out of its Tourist Development Tax revenue.
During the process over the past year-and-a-half to try to secure the team’s relocation, Yates continued, with “every single document that we received, [it was], ‘Your back’s against the wall.’”
The Sarasota County Commission and the board of the West Villages Improvement District approved the final agreement last week.
McDowell characterized the situation as having “a gun to the head. … I would never [rush into signing an important document] in my personal life. I sure as hell wouldn’t do it up here at the dais.”
On the other side of the issue, Vice Mayor Vanessa Carusone said, “I don’t see the risk; I see the reward. … We are covered in liability.”
She named all the various city departments that had been involved in the review of the final agreement, adding, “I just think we have already put this through the process as thoroughly as we can. … It’s a good deal.”
“I think [the complex] will be the economic driver that it should be,” Commissioner Jill Luke added.
The Chappell Roberts news release says the Braves are expected to have a $1.7-billion economic impact from 2019 to 2048, with estimated attendance in the first season of Spring Training put at 73,613. The release adds that 23% of the fans are expected to come from out-of-state, “spending $6.3 million in the community annually.”
“I’m for it, too,” Commissioner Christopher Hanks said. “I, too, think it’s a good deal.”
In March 2016m the County Commission authorized County Administrator Tom Harmer to begin formal negotiations with the team. In January, the Braves announced that they had selected Sarasota County for their new Spring Training home. They will join the Baltimore Orioles, who conduct Spring Training at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.
In 2016, the Orioles announced that their team has an annual impact of $89 million on the county’s economy.
“[That] result has grown in every year that it has been measured by the annual government study,” a February 2016 news release from the team pointed out. The $89 million is more than two-and-a-half times the $35 million “the Orioles projected in testimony given before the Florida State Senate in 2004 and the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners in 2009, prior to the relocation of the Orioles’ year-round training headquarters, unique tourism marketing, and community sports park concept to Sarasota,” the release said.
The Orioles began Spring Training in Sarasota in 2010.
In an application the county submitted to the state in late July, seeking funding assistance for improvements to River Road, staff wrote that it 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.
River Road is a key access to the Braves’ complex site in the West Villages.