By a 4-1 margin, the Sarasota County Commission approved a term sheet for a new Atlanta Braves spring training complex in North Port, moving the proposed facility one step closer to reality.
The plan for the $75.4-million project calls for a ballpark with 6,500 fixed seats and 1,500 berm seating capacity, six full practice fields, two half fields and a 55,000-square-foot administrative complex with major- and minor-league clubhouses, training spaces, rehab areas and executive offices. It would open in 2019.
Funding for the project would be distributed between Sarasota County ($21.3 million in bonds backed by tourism taxes) the state’s spring-training facilities fund ($13.1 million), the city of North Port ($9 million over 30 years), the local developer ($9 million over 30 years), and the Braves (up to $2.5 million a year, depending on the level of debt service). The Braves will also pay $7.5 million up front to equip the complex, as well as paying for other ballpark features, such as the videoboard and signage, not covered under the deal. In addition, the Braves will fund a new player academy as part of the complex, with facilities that include a dorm accommodating 145 players and staff, a 200-seat auditorium and a 200-capacity dining hall, all designed for year-round training, playing (the GCL Braves will make their way to the new complex) and rehabilitation stints. These sort of player academies are proving to be popular in Major League Baseball; the Pirates have Pirate City and the Twins added an academy when the Lee County Sports Complex was renovated.
The approval of the term sheet is not final approval for the project, but it does move it forward. Some commissioners want to see more specificity in a final lease cover county and high-school use of the facility, as well as a determination of who receives naming-rights revenue. (Currently the Braves receive all naming-rights revenue.)
The term sheet is the result of years of work from the Braves, who have been training at Disney’s Wide World of Sports since 1998. The team had consulted with several Florida counties and cities before narrowing the field to Sarasota County, Palm Beach County (Lake Worth) and Collier County (Naples). But Collier County and Palm Beach County did not put forward any funding plans, leaving Sarasota County the opening. Despite the Sarasota County location, the new complex will actually be closer to Port Charlotte, where the Rays train, than Sarasota, where the Orioles train.
The goal is still a 2019 opening, with the Braves spending one last spring in 2018 at Champion Stadium and Disney’s Wide World of Sports.