Wearing a white Atlanta Braves jersey with the words “West Villages” etched on the back and several supporters holding up Atlanta pennants, West Villages general manager Marty Black sat and listened at Tuesday’s Sarasota County commission meeting.
Black was one of several people at the meeting who are in exclusive negotiations with the Braves to bring the Major League Baseball franchise to North Port for spring training starting in 2019.
And one key hurdle in that was the commissioners voting to prioritize revamping River Road, which is where the proposed spring training facility in the West Villages would sit next to U.S. 41.
“We’re building an entire road network in terms of our community,” Black said. “We’ve also offered and we are in negotiations to complete an agreement to widen the first segment of River Road as the primary developer. ... It’s a $20 (million) to $28 million commitment we’re making as a private developer in addition to what we’re doing with the Braves.”
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County Commissioner Charles Hines was quick to point out the two-lane River Road improvements, which will use trip funding retroactive to the 2016 fiscal year, isn’t because of the Braves’ potential arrival in two years.
“It’s a road that has been deficient for over 30 years,” Hines said. “It is a current hurricane evacuation route for three counties: Sarasota County, Charlotte County and the extreme southern point of Lee County on Boca Grande. ... This is needed and has been needed.”
Tuesday’s meeting was the first time Braves officials spoke to the public, offering an update on negotiations for their spring training project.
That includes a stadium with 9,000 seats, a 360-degree concourse, luxury suites, 750 paved parking spaces, six fields and two half practice fields.
The estimated cost is $75 million to $80 million, which does not include the land and infrastructure cost.
Jeff Maultsby, Sarasota County’s director of business and economic development, said there is no cost to Florida residents. The money needed will come from tourism dollars.
“Our funding source ... will be the tourism development tax or more commonly known as the hotel bed tax,” Maultsby said. “There will be a cap on that and a limit on that, and it will be primarily paid by those people that are visiting our community. ... So local residents will not see any action on tax increases as part of this deal.”
By March, we’ll know if you have these funds or not.
Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert
The last negotiations involving an MLB team came with the Baltimore Orioles replacing the Cincinnati Reds at Sarasota’s Ed Smith Stadium, a park that received a facelift with various improvements.
Maultsby said the economic impact from the Orioles is $45 million for spring training and $89 million annually.
The commission meeting saw various commitments unveiled from three parties: the Braves, West Villages and the county.
The Braves, who will end a 21-year run in Orlando, are committed to signing a 30-year lease with annual payments to cover stadium debt.
Atlanta vice chairman John Schuerholz, who is getting inducted into MLB’s Hall of Fame this summer, expressed the Braves’ desire to make Sarasota work.
Schuerholz said he knows the area, citing his past time with the Kansas City Royals, which had an academy off Clark Road at one time, and living on Siesta Key for 10 years.
The need to relocate for spring training was due, in part, to the team deciding to leave the Walt Disney complex in the Orlando area following the 2018 season.
And the reasoning for that began with teams jettisoning Central Florida for other locales, including Arizona and along both Florida coasts.
Schuerholz noted Lakeland, where the Detroit Tigers are spring tenants, is 50 miles away from the Braves’ current facilities.
“Just recently two teams went to the east coast and have built a new facility over there, leaving us with but one team,” Schuerholz said. “That not only impacts our Major League team during Major League Spring Training, but also our many, many Minor League teams that we train. And we’d be spending far more hours on buses, and fewer hours on the playing fields honing their skills.”
The next steps include a letter of intent/term sheet, a lease agreement, receiving a commitment for state funding, a tourism development tax ordinance, project development agreement and inter-local agreement with the West Villages Taxing District.
Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert alluded to how quickly it’ll be known if the Braves can move forward with the state of Florida’s backing.
“By March, we’ll know if you have these funds or not,” Detert said.