Braves eye Palm Beach again in search for new spring home

As they prepare to start spring training at Disney World for the 19th — and perhaps next-to-last — time this week, the Braves are interested in returning to their previous spring home of Palm Beach County in south Florida.

The Braves held spring training in West Palm Beach for 35 years before departing for Disney's Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando in 1998. With their Disney lease expiring after spring 2017, the Braves have been searching Florida's east and west coasts for more than a year for a new spring home for 2018 and beyond. The search remains open and in flux, but Braves officials are openly eyeing Palm Beach County.

To help assess whether a return there is a viable possibility, the Braves hired a governmental-affairs consultant familiar with the area to serve as their lobbyist, team president John Schuerholz confirmed.

“It signals that we feel there is some level of interest (there),” Schuerholz said. “We haven’t really gone any further than to hire a lobbyist to help us figure our way through the Palm Beach County political system and truly sort of measure what level of interest there might be.

“We know the community well (and) still have very fond memories of it,” he added. “It would be comfortable for us (to return), and perhaps the county will feel that way as well and we can get this process moving along.”

The Braves are seeking to relocate their spring-training base when their current lease expires because by then only one Grapefruit League opponent, the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, will train within 45 minutes of the Disney complex. The Braves want to move to a location where numerous teams are clustered, thus reducing travel time to exhibition games.

Last summer, the Braves endorsed a proposal to build a facility in the St. Petersburg area, writing in a letter to Pinellas County officials that the team hoped to reach an agreement there by the end of 2015. But that proposal, which would have involved substantial taxpayer money, was quickly derailed when Major League Baseball said the region should focus instead on building a new regular-season stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I don’t know if I’d say ‘fell apart’ (to describe the St. Petersburg possibility), but it’s been stopped because Major League Baseball took the position they took,” Schuerholz said.

A deal in Palm Beach County might be a long shot, too.

The county last year committed $108 million in public funds toward building a new spring facility in West Palm Beach for the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, leaving much question about whether the county could or would pour more tax money into a deal for another stadium so soon.

County Administrator Verdenia Baker told The Palm Beach Post this week that she is “not aware of any county land or any county revenue sources” available for a stadium for the Braves.

To have a new spring-training stadium built by 2018, the Braves would need to have a deal in place in the coming months.

Schuerholz said if the Braves find a location by April or May of this year, “we would be comfortable we could get a single-team facility built and up and running by the spring of 2018.”

If that doesn’t happen, the Braves could seek to extend their lease at Disney, but Schuerholz said “there has been no conversation” between the Braves and Disney to this point about an extension.

Aside from the Palm Beach area, Schuerholz said the Braves continue to discuss other unnamed Florida communities as potential spring-training homes. He said the team doesn’t have a specific site in mind in Palm Beach County.