The Atlanta Braves entered exclusive negotiations with Sarasota County to move spring training operations to North Port. Braves officials say the team could be here as soon as the 2019 pre-season if a deal is reached, which would mean Sarasota County, for the first time, would host two Major League Baseball teams for spring training. Plans for a stadium that could cost $80 million or more will be paid for in part with approximately $21 million in public funding, but county officials stressed that would come from tourist development tax revenue and that local taxpayers would not be on the hook for the cost.

Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk on Tuesday broadcast optimism about North Port becoming the new spring home of the Atlanta team. "This is the perfect location for our team and we couldn't be more excited to be part of Sarasota County and West Villages,” he said in a formal statement. The Braves for 20 years have trained at facilities on the Walt Disney World resort property in Central Florida, but as more teams migrated training operations south, the Braves have been increasingly disconnected from the rest of the Grapefruit League. The only other Major League Baseball club hosting its spring training in Central Florida is the Detroit Tigers, in Lakeland, which creates travel demands on players during pre-season games. In contrast, Sarasota already hosts the Baltimore Orioles, Bradenton the Pittsburgh Pirates and Port Charlotte the Tampa Bay Rays. Lee County hosts the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox.

County Commissioner Alan Miao says he’s most excited at the prospect of the team in North Port, now Sarasota County’s most populous city but a destination sometimes overlooked in terms of tourist attraction appeal. ”It’s an absolutely great thing,” Maio says. “I don’t want to prejudge it, but I know there is significant involvement from the private sector and we have got multiple jurisdictions. That the Braves are desirous of coming here, it’s a big deal, and I am sure we will manage to put together a deal that makes sense.”

Braves officials have also discussed specific plans with Palm Beach County, where four other teams play. Collier County has also been in the mix at times, but county commissioners there late last year pulled out of talks with the team citing concerns about public costs. The Tuesday announcement of exclusive negotiations, though, signaled no more conversations were being had with other communities.

The deal as it stands now will require a certain level of reallotments of bed tax revenue. Jeff Maultsby, Sarasota County economic development coordinator, says the potential contribution from the county government was always limited with the maximum charter cap limit for tourist development tax. The Braves deal as it stands now calls for about $21 million. “No money is coming out of any taxpayers’ pockets,” he says. “This is funded by visitors who stay in our hotels.”

But that revenue source also funds the Orioles spring training facility, a rowing venue at Nathan Benderson Park and beach renourishment, among other tourism-related expenditures. Some reallocation will be necessary to fund the deal, but Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley says that will be worth it. “I’m sure we are going to feel a little bit of pain in our budget,” she says, “but we’ll be able to put together the ending we need.” She notes that the Orioles deal uses substantial bed tax funding but has produced incredible returns in terms of new visitors from the Baltimore area. Before the Orioles trained here, Baltimore-Washington, DC wasn’t a top 10 market for Sarasota visitors, but today it’s the No. 3 market for the county year-round. That’s in part because of marketing in Baltimore provided by the Orioles, and Haley expects similar provisions in a Braves deal.

McGuirk told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last April that the facility being considered would rival spring training operations in Arizona, noteworthy locally as the Cincinnati Reds left Sarasota nearly a decade ago to train in the Grand Canyon State. “Florida historically has not kept up as well with the Arizona build-outs of spring training, and I think this will be a real credit for Florida, the kind of facility we’re looking for and they’re promising,” Mcguire told the newspaper then.

Maultsby says the new facilities will meet current MLB standards, and all facilities will be brand new. The team will have training and practice fields and a new stadium within the North Port city limits. Details on the scope of that venue have not been publicly revealed yet.

A combination of state funding, City of North Port contributions and tourist development tax dollars collected by Sarasota County could be used in the deal, along with funding from the Braves, but a major part of discussions here have always included land provided at no public expense by the West Villages Improvement District. Mattamy Homes has also played a major role in negotiations, officials say. "This is a true public-private partnership," says West Villages General Manager Marty Black. ”We are excited to be at the table. The stadium complex blends will into our master plan for the area. It will become an anchor for our future entertainment district and complement our planned new downtown Main Street development." 

Sarasota County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo says elected officials are still awaiting more details themselves, and will receive a public update next week. “Everything I know could fit on an index card,” he says. He still wants to know how a final deal is structured to determine if a deal is good for the community. “I want to hear the pitch,” he says, “no pun intended.”

Tourism officials in the area hope this lets the Gulf Coast tap into the Atlanta market. “We have found a lot of people who live in that area have easy access to get to a beach in Panama City or Jacksonville,” says Rob Wells, Sarasota County sports commissioner. “Now having the Braves here, we will be bringing those fans in to experience this area for the first time.” Wells also noted that until the early ‘90s, the Braves were the only MLB team located in the heart of the South for years, so the club boasts a regional fan base that at times has been among the biggest in professional sports. And by locating in North Port, it also brings an attraction to South Sarasota County, which can’t really on beaches to draw folks to town.