SPRING TRAINING FOR 2016 MAY BE COMING TO A CLOSE, but tourism officials already have their eyes on who might play here in March of 2018. The Atlanta Braves in early March entered into formal negotiations with Sarasota County and the West Villages Improvement District regarding the possible relocation of its Spring Training operations to the North Port area, and while specifics remain scarce, leaders here believe a deal could come together within months and that baseball fans here might want to practice their Tomahawk Chop.

Photography by Eugene Buchko.

ATLANTA BRAVES PITCHER BRANDON BEACHY, #37, IN ACTION DURING THE MLB GAME BETWEEN THE ATLANTA BRAVES AND THE LOS ANGELES DODGERS ON APRIL 9, 2011 AT DODGER STADIUM IN LOS ANGELES. PHOTO COURTESY OF P

THE ATLANTA BRAVES for the past 19 years have held Spring Training at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World. But the contract between the ball club and the Disney Corporation runs out next year, and as other teams in Florida’s Grapefruit League move south, so has the attention of Braves leadership. For the past year, the team publicly explored a potential move to Palm Beach or St. Petersburg, and lobbyists for the team publicly hinted other options were always on the table. On the evening of March 7, Sarasota County officials revealed at least one of those options. “The team, through their representatives, contacted Sarasota County to advise us that they are evaluating several potential Florida locations, including Sarasota County,” reads a memo penned by Jeff Maultsby, Sarasota County director of business and economic development. The message laid out specifics of a deal to build a stadium, practice fields and office space at a site just off U.S. 41 in the new commercial core of the master-planned community of West Villages, adjacent to the State College of Florida-Venice campus and a future Sarasota Memorial Hospital 28-acre medical and wellness complex.

Most interesting to close observers, the land would be provided at no public cost by the improvement district. The corporate sponsorship eliminates one of the biggest costs normally associated with publicly-subsidized stadium deals. This would be the first major commercial project in the master-planned community. Main Street Ranchlands, the commercial developers in West Villages, and the Sembler Company announced a joint venture to develop the Marketplace at Coastamar in West Villages, with the shopping and entertainment district set to open in 2018.

“The opportunity to provide the Braves with a world class home for spring training matches our desire to create an intergenerational destination focused on an active lifestyle to make this possible,” stated West Villages General Manager Martin Black.  At the same time, officials have made clear a Braves deal would depend on the contribution of an undisclosed but likely significant amount of county revenue. When the Baltimore Orioles negotiated a deal with Sarasota County in 2009 to relocate Spring Training to Ed Smith Stadium, the county committed to $31 million to upgrade facilities at the Sarasota Stadium and at Twin Lakes Park to meet the needs of the ball club. But other teams have asked for more than that. When the Red Sox were negotiating with Sarasota County, officials discussed a price tag north of $70 million, an amount ultimately topped by Lee County when it convinced the Boston team to keep Spring Training operations in the Fort Myers area by paying for a new $80-million stadium. The question before Sarasota County commissioners in coming months will likely be how much they are willing to spend on a deal. And those negotiations likely depend on how serious the Braves are in relocating to this part of Florida.

Exploring Options 

In September last year, the Braves sent the Major League Baseball universe atwitter as it suddenly announced an interest in moving Spring Training out of  Lake Buena Vista and into the community of  St. Petersburg. Developer Darryl LeClair announced plans for a sports facility in the Toytown area that would house, among other sporting facilities, space for the Braves to move operations and a field on which to play. That plan, though, drew a rebuke at a time when the city of St. Petersburg was fighting to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in town,  and Major League Baseball issued a statement saying any talk in Pinellas should be on finding a new stadium for the home team. “Major League Baseball appreciates the support that it has received for the construction of Spring Training facilities throughout the State of Florida. The most pressing need, however, is the construction of a Major League-quality facility for the Rays,” reads the statement. “Major League Baseball is committed to working with the Rays to secure a new ballpark in cooperation with the Tampa Bay region.  This can only happen with the support of local political and business leaders.”

But the Braves seemed to back away from that proposal in early February. The Atlanta Journal-Constitition took notice when Pinellas County planners held a public meeting about the proposed sports park and the Braves declined to participate in discussions, and Braves President John Scheurholz told the paper only “we are continuing to speak to various Florida communities” about their interest in Spring Training. County officials told the Tampa Bay Times that they no longer knew if the Braves were involved at all.

Then in February, the team started conversations with Palm Beach County, which was home to Braves Spring Training before the move to Walt Disney World. The Palm Beach Post reports, however, that the county couldn’t meet the team’s needs. “I thought it would be great,” said Palm Beach County Commission Priscilla Taylor, “but the problem is we have no money to give them.” The Braves did not return repeated phone calls about talks with Sarasota County, but through the West Villages Improvement District, Scheurholz issued an optimistic but noncommittal statement. “We are excited and appreciative that West Villages and Sarasota County are working with us to potentially secure a beautiful, state-of-the-art, future Spring Training location for the Braves,” Schuerholz’s statement reads. One party that does not appear to be negotiating with the team? Disney. The Spring Training season for the Braves kicked off at Champion Field on March 1 this year with a game against the Orioles, and Disney officials marketed the event with vigor. “We have a long and rich history with the Braves and we are happy to have this season,” said Disney spokeswoman Jessica Quinn. But any questions about the team’s future were referred to the ball club. Disney did announce plans for an expansion of a new Varsity Sports facility at the Wide World of Sports with space for volleyball and basketball. One  thing not getting renovated at all? Champion Field and facilities used by the Atlanta Braves.

A Cost Ahead

If there is one significant difference in where Sarasota County stands today and where it was when the Baltimore Orioles were negotiating in 2009, it’s the state of the tourist development tax. The revenue used to pay for the Orioles was all raised through an increase in the bed tax, which is charged on hotel stays and short-term lodging in the county. Politically, it’s easier to raise a bed tax because it chiefly gets charged on visitors instead of constituents, but between the hike associated with the Orioles deal and a later deal to pay for improvements to Nathan Benderson Park, the tax has reached its legal limit and cannot be raised anymore.

But any deal most likely will face public opposition-the Orioles deal drew heavy criticism as corporate welfare, with one watchdog group, Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government, forming largely for the sake of criticizing the deal. That group ultimately took the county to court over allegations of Sunshine Law violations during the Orioles negotiation, and while the lawsuit was not successful, emotions about the deal remain high, and talk of the Atlanta Braves awoke an old discussion. “The data hasn’t changed,” says Cathy Antunes, founder of that group. “These deals don’t deliver the benefits they promise.”

She also questioned if the deals were truly necessary to keep Spring Training in Florida. Public subsidies came into vogue after several teams left Florida to train in Arizona, including the Cincinnati Reds who left Sarasota for Goodyear. “The reasons those teams come here is the same reason all visitors come here, and if Florida and Arizona said they were not going to pay for it anymore [the teams] would just have to pay for it themselves.”

Whether the county commission this time warms to the idea of public subsidies remains unknown. County Commission chairman Alan Maio struck a favorable note in March, calling the chance to get the Braves an “excellent opportunity for our county as well as the entire region.”

But County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo was more reserved. He voted to open talks, and says the chance to get a tourism draw in South County could be positive, but wants to gauge the public appetite for subsidies. As Sarasota explores a Bayfront renovation and other business forces rally around concepts like a conference center, he wants to know the price tag for the county on a deal before making any commitment of funding. “How many counties of our size have two sports teams they have funded?” he asks.

And the question remains where money would come from. Some counties like Miami charge a one-cent sales tax devoted to maintaining a professional sports team, but do it for entities like the Miami Dolphins that have their primary operations in town year-round. Haley says that while the bed tax is maxed, the county could change how the money is spent. And either way, she notes that while the tax raises revenue, the bonding for sports facilities was done against the county’s general fund.

All the while, tourism officials still dream of what may be. Haley says the Atlanta Braves have a fan base extending far beyond the Atlanta area, with devoted followers throughout the Deep South. And Florida visitors from states like Georgia tend to drive to locales in the Panhandle, the so-called “Redneck Riviera.” Could locating the Braves here change that? “We look at it as a prime opportunity to introduce Southwest Florida to a whole new audience,” she says.