In a southwest Florida pasture, where cattle grazed as recently as last month, the Braves broke ground Monday for their new $100 million spring-training facility.
Bulldozers, trucks and other pieces of heavy equipment were lined up, ready for action, on the former ranch land as the groundbreaking ceremony marked the official start of construction of the stadium complex where the Braves plan to hold spring training for at least 30 years.
“Let’s get the bulldozers going,” Braves Vice Chairman John Schuerholz said after the ceremony.
The Braves’ new spring home is envisioned as a centerpiece of the planned 10,000-acre West Villages development in North Port, a city in southern Sarasota County.
Ultimately, the development could include 25,000 homes and 3 million square feet of retail and office space, according to Marty Black, chairman of the West Villages Improvement District. About 3,000 of the homes have been built so far, he said.
The Braves will move their spring-training base from Disney’s Wide World of Sports near Orlando, where they have trained since 1998 and will train again in 2018.
Plans call for a stadium with 6,200 fixed seats, berm seating for another 2,000 and outfield dimensions mirroring those of the Braves’ regular-season home, SunTrust Park. Six full practice fields and two half fields also are planned nearby.
More than $40 million in taxpayer funds from the state of Florida, Sarasota County and North Port will go toward the project.
Schuerholz called it “the second most important project we have done,” behind only SunTrust Park.
The Braves intend to move into the new facility for spring training 2019, which team officials conceded is an aggressive timetable that might require a backup plan.
Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk, who led a delegation of nine team executives at the groundbreaking ceremony, said the Braves hope and plan to have the stadium open by February 2019, just 16 months from now. But McGuirk said Schuerholz will consult with officials at Disney about the possibility of a stop-gap agreement to train there in 2019 if the new facility isn’t ready by then.
Local officials vowed it will be ready.
“We will have the Braves playing here for spring training in 2019,” Black said. “No doubt.”
Some clearing work already had been done on the site, and more was scheduled as soon as the cameras and dignitaries left the groundbreaking ceremony.
“We start moving more dirt later (Monday) afternoon,” Black said. “These trucks are not here on display, not just for show.
“We’ve started grading on the far fields already, so we’re moving along. We actually just re-fenced it all and fenced the cattle out in the last 20 days, so we could begin construction work.”
Under a large tent on a sweltering afternoon, Schuerholz spoke for the Braves at a ceremony that also included remarks by Sarasota County, North Port and West Villages officials.
“We thank you so much for welcoming us into your beautiful community,” Schuerholz said. “We look forward to being a fantastic neighbor and enjoying many, many years of baseball -- 30 of them at least -- together with you.”
The groundbreaking capped a three-year-long search by the Braves for a new spring home in Florida that would put them closer to other teams’ training camps and reduce travel time to Grapefruit League games. Five teams currently train within an hour’s drive or less of the North Port site.
Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer recalled getting a call on his cell phone from Schuerholz in early 2015 “to let the county know the Braves were starting a process to look at options.”
One of the early serious discussions between the Braves and Sarasota County occurred at the baseball winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., in December 2015.
“I can recall sitting across a small table with a high top from (Schuerholz), talking about this possibility,” Black said. “We actually sketched some potential plans on napkins in the breakfast room.”
Still, the Braves also pursued spring-training possibilities in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Collier County (Naples) and Palm Beach County before turning their attention solely to Sarasota County/North Port early this year.
The final governmental approvals for the project were obtained last month.
Sarasota County will cover $21.3 million of the construction cost, the state of Florida $14.4 million and North Port $4.7 million, according to financing documents provided to North Port city commissioners. (The state’s commitment is a total of $20 million over 20 years, but that includes interest payments.)
The Braves are on the hook for $55.5 million through a combination of up-front payments of about $18 million and annual payments over 30 years sufficient to cover debt service on $37.5 million in bonds, according to the documents. West Villages’ private developer, Mattamy Homes, will contribute $4.7 million plus land and infrastructure.
Unlike at SunTrust Park, the Braves won’t be involved as developers of the surrounding property, leaving that to Mattamy.
“From the beginning, we recognized that one of our challenges would be to convince the Braves about the vision for this property and the West Villages community,” Jeff Maultsby, Sarasota County’s director of business and economic development, said during Monday’s ceremony. “As we look around this empty field today, it may still be hard to believe, but in 16 months this will be the site of a state-of-the-art spring-training facility.
“Over there, near those trucks, marks the spot where home plate will be, or thereabouts. ... Where you’re sitting right here will be the perfect spot to catch a Freddie Freeman home run.”