Braves delay opening of new spring training complex, stay at Disney extra year

12:46 p.m Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 Sports
Photo from Atlanta Braves
A view of the Braves’ new spring training site as of early last week.

The Braves will hold spring training at Disney World one year longer than planned, delaying their move to southwest Florida.

The team broke ground on a training complex in the Sarasota County city of North Port last fall and planned to open the facility in February 2019, which would have made this year’s spring training the Braves’ last at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando.

But the Braves said Wednesday they will extend their lease with Disney through April 2019 “to ensure there is enough time to complete” the new facility. The team said it will hold 2019 spring training at Disney with the exception of playing the final home game that spring in the new stadium.

At a groundbreaking ceremony in October, Braves officials conceded the construction timetable was aggresive and might require a backup plan.

Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk said at the time that the Braves hoped and planned to have the stadium open by February 2019, just 16 months after groundbreaking. But McGuirk said then that Braves Vice Chairman John Schuerholz would consult with executives at Disney about the possibility of a stop-gap agreement to train there again in 2019 if the new facility wasn’t ready.

Local officials in Sarasota County had vowed the facility would be ready. 

Early phases of work are underway on the site, located in the West Villages Florida development  in North Port, but a stadium is not yet rising from the ground. The site is former ranch land, where cattle grazed as recently as last summer.

The price tag for the project recently rose from $100 million to $110 million, after earlier rising from a $75 million-$80 million estimate.

The state of Florida, Sarasota County and North Port have committed about $45 million in taxpayer funds. A private developer will contribute $4.7 million plus land and infrastructure. The Braves are responsible for the rest.

The project changed general contractors shortly before groundbreaking, slowing the process.

Schuerholz, in a statement Wednesday,  said the Braves “are thankful for our good friends” at Disney for the extension.

“We also appreciate the foresight and thoughtfulness of our partners in North Port, Sarasota County and West Villages in recognizing such an extension will be of benefit as we continue to make progress on our new facility,” Schuerholz said. “When complete, our new state-of-the-art facility will secure our long-term goal of creating a perfectly positioned and operational spring training facility for the next 30 years.”

Jeff Maultsby, Sarasota County’s director of business and economic development, said in a statement that the county “fully” supports the Braves’ decision to delay the move and is “excited to celebrate their arrival at the 2019 spring training finale.”

The Braves have trained at Disney since 1998. Before reaching a deal with Sarasota County and North Port, they spent several years searching Florida for a location -- and taxpayer funding -- that would put them closer to other teams’ training camps and reduce travel time to Grapefruit League games.

The North Port facility is envisioned as a centerpiece of the planned 10,000-acre West Villages development.  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, he said last fall.

Current and still-evolving plans call for a stadium with about 6,500 fixed seats and general-admission space for another 2,500, including berm seating.  Six full practice fields and 55,000 square feet of clubhouse and fitness-center space are planned in the complex.

The Braves said they now plan to move their year-round Florida operations to the facility in April 2019.