Braves Enter Spring Training Talks with Sarasota



Sarasota County has started negotiating with the Atlanta Braves about relocating Spring Training to the North Port area as soon as the 2018 season. The move comes as multiple teams in Central Florida move training south to be near other teams in the Florida Grapefruit League. County commissioners on Tuesday authorized economic development officials to start formal discussions, and the West Villages Improvement District in South Sarasota County has proposed a site near State Road 41 and River Road for a stadium, practice fields and other facilities.

“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,” said Braves President John Schuerholz.

The county right now is home to Spring Training for the Baltimore Orioles; that team trains at facilities at Ed Smith Stadium and Twin Lakes Park. The Orioles and county inked a deal in 2009 that utilized $31 million in public funding to upgrade stadium and baseball facilities. For the moment, the public burden of this project remains unknown, but officials made clear that a deal would almost certainly require the use of tourist development tax revenue. The improvement district has proposed to bond the project and oversee design and construction, and would also apply for a state grant. The team would likely commit to train here for 30 years with two five-year renewals built into the contract. A release from the district said the proposed property is located in south Sarasota County 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. 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.

But while commissioners agreed to start talks, they stressed support will depend on numerous factors including the coming public tax burden. The county cannot further increase the county bed tax, though officials have discussed a sales tax to support a sport facility. County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said while he was pleased at the idea of bringing a sports destination to South County, he wants to know what sort of revenues would be required of the county before he will support a long-term deal. “I am sure we wouldn’t be discussing it without a fairly significant public investment involved,” he said.

And critics of using public funds for Major League Baseball facilities maintain subsidizing a sports franchise does not serve the public. “These deals don't deliver the benefits they promise,” said Cathy Antunes, founder for Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government, a group that legally challenged the Orioles deal.

But Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, said having land from the district should make any deal easier to support. And tourism officials were already greeting news about another baseball club in the area with enthusiasm. “The Braves have a strong national draw and a strong following throughout the South,” Haley said. “We look at this as a strong opportunity to introduce Southwest Florida to a new audience.”

Photo courtesy Atlanta Braves: Spring Training Opening Day, March 1, at ESPN Wide World of Sports.

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