As the Braves conduct their next-to-last year of spring training at Disney World, their future spring home is under construction 135 miles to the southwest in a much quieter part of Florida.
The timetable for opening the new facility has been pushed back, and the cost has increased, but the column structures for the stadium have begun to come out of the ground, the slab for the clubhouse has been poured and the faint outline of a baseball field has started to emerge in the dirt. The Braves vow to play their final spring-training game next year in the $125-million facility in the Sarasota County city of North Port.
“Everybody feels quite comfortable that when our players show up there in (late) March of 2019, the ballpark will be done, the clubhouse will be done, the batting cages and mounds will be done on the major-league side, two major-league practice fields will be done,” said Chip Moore, the long-time Braves executive recently named to direct the project.
When the Braves held a ceremonial groundbreaking in October, their goal was to open the facility in February 2019, which would have made this spring their last at Disney. But three months later, unable to shake concerns that the construction schedule was too tight, the Braves exercised an option to return to Disney for 2019 spring training with the stipulation that they would play their final home exhibition game that spring in the new facility. The Braves then will hold their first full spring training in North Port in 2020.
The team’s new spring home is being built on former ranch land, where cattle grazed just last summer, as part of a 10,000-acre master-planned development called West Villages Florida.
There are 3,300 homes in the development’s first five neighborhoods, including last year’s 992 new home sales, which made West Villages the nation’s fifth fastest-growing master-planned community in a ranking by a real-estate research firm. If the developers’ big dreams are realized, West Villages could have as many as 25,000 homes and as much as 3 million square feet of retail and office space built over the next three or four decades.
The Braves signed a non-relocation agreement that requires them to hold spring training there for 30 years, nine years longer than they have trained at Disney.
“It puts us on the map. The spring-training facility puts us on the map as a recognized place and community,” West Villages marketing manager Sondra Guffey said. “It also gives us a central place for events that we badly need in this area, not just for West Villages but for all of south Sarasota County.
“In news reports about spring training, it will say ‘from West Villages’ or ‘from North Port, Fla.’ As a marketer, I love that. It’s a great benefit for us.”
As work intensifies on the Braves’ facility – “there are 200 to 300 people working there,” Guffey said -- another 1,000 homes are expected to be completed in West Villages this year. Construction also is expected to begin this year on a Publix-anchored shopping center a mile from the stadium site. And later, a town center is planned nearby with restaurants, shops, offices, condominiums and apartments, although that may be several years away.
The Braves’ future spring home is about 35 miles south of Sarasota, about 12 miles east of Venice and 15-20 minutes from the nearest Gulf of Mexico beaches. The site is located just off U.S. 41 and about four miles from I-75 – the same highways that run past SunTrust Park in Cobb County.
Getting closer to other teams’ spring-training facilities – and getting taxpayer help toward building a state-of-the-art facility to replace the 20-year-old digs at Disney – drove the Braves’ search for a new location in Florida.
The North Port facility will be within an hour’s drive or so of five other MLB teams’ spring-training camps, including the Tampa Bay Rays’ complex 14 miles away in Port Charlotte and the Baltimore Orioles’ in Sarasota.
The project’s cost was estimated early last year at $75 million to $80 million, which had risen to $100 million by September and $110 million by December. Last week, Braves owner Liberty Media amended the number again, stating in a financial report: “The total cost of construction for the spring training facility is estimated to be approximately $125 million, of which the Braves are contributing approximately $55 million using debt and cash on hand, and the remaining funding is coming from municipal and private entities.”
Moore, whose position in the Braves’ front office recently shifted from chief financial officer to executive vice president of minor league affiliates and strategic planning, attributed the increased price tag in part to higher labor and materials costs in the aftermath of last year’s Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. He also said elements sought by the Braves in the stadium’s design “probably expanded a little bit.”
The latest increase in cost doesn’t change the amount of taxpayer money in the project. The state of Florida, Sarasota County and North Port have committed approximately $45 million combined. West Villages’ developer, a partnership led by Canada-based homebuilding giant Mattamy Homes, will contribute $4.7 million plus land and infrastructure.
Alhough major-league spring training is the headliner, the Braves will operate the complex year-round, hosting extended spring-training for minor leaguers, a Gulf Coast League team in the summer, instructional league play in the fall and medical rehab facilities. Having a Florida State League affiliate play in the stadium isn’t part of the deal, but the eventual possibility was broached during public meetings.
The stadium will have 6,500 fixed seats and general-admission space for another 2,000 people, including berm seating beyond left field. A 360-degree concourse and a “boardwalk” extending from foul pole to foul pole are planned. The outfield dimensions will mirror SunTrust Park’s, although the wall heights won’t vary as they do at SunTrust.
The complex will include 6-1/2 practice fields, as well as multi-purpose fields and public space that can be used for special events.
As construction proceeds, the Braves are seeking a naming-rights sponsor.