Braves seek to move spring training home to St. Petersburg

The Braves would move their spring training facilities from the Orlando area to St. Petersburg in 2018 under a proposal the team recently submitted to Pinellas County officials.

The Aug. 31 proposal included a letter from Braves president John Schuerholz, who wrote that the team hoped to reach an agreement to relocate to the region by the end of the year. Schuerholz said construction would begin by next year with completion scheduled for the 2018 season.

A Braves spokeswoman said the team has no comment on the proposal. The story was first reported Tuesday by The Tampa Bay Times.

Pinellas County administrator Mark S. Woodard wrote in a memo that an evaluation committee ranked a proposal by SportsPark Partners LLC for the new Braves facilities as the best among three submitted by a Sept. 1 deadline. The county board of commissioners is to consider all three proposals at a future meeting this fall.

The Braves have trained at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., since 1998. Schuerholz told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in March that the team was conducting a “broad-based search” across Florida for a potential new spring training site. The team’s lease with Disney expires in 2017.

The leading proposal for the St. Petersburg site was submitted by SportsPark Partners LLC, which includes the Braves, Echelon real estate development fund and the Gary Sheffield Sports Foundation. The architect for the proposed project is Populous, which is building the Braves’ new stadium in Cobb County. The proposal estimates the cost for the project at $662 million.

Sheffield is a Tampa native who played for the Braves from 2002-03. He did not return a phone message on Tuesday but a letter of interest from Schuerholz to Sheffield is part of the SportsPark proposal.

“We look forward to entering into the next phase of our discussions with you and Pinellas County to work hard and in earnest to try to reach terms on a deal before the end of 2015 and make this development a facility of which we all can be proud,” Schuerholz wrote to Sheffield.

The SportsPark proposal includes a 10,000-seat stadium with berm seating for an additional 1,000 fans. It also includes additional athletic fields, other sports facilities and a hotel on the site, with the goal of making the facility an “international destination” for amateur and professional sports. That would make the project similar to the Disney complex.

The St. Petersburg location is not the only site known to be considered by the Braves. Real estate consultants representing the team met with officials in Palm Beach County in April. The Braves trained there from 1963 until departing for the Disney complex.

Once the Nationals and Astros relocate to a planned new facility in West Palm Beach in 2017, the Braves and Tigers would be the only teams remaining in the Orlando area. The Tigers train in Lakeland, which is about 45 miles west of Lake Buena Vista.

Schuerholz said in March that the Braves had not ruled out renewing their lease with Disney, but that proximity to other teams was a major consideration for Grapefruit League scheduling.

“That’s the great equation for us: Spend more time on the field and less time on the bus,” Schuerholz said.

There are 15 teams that train in Florida and five are clustered within a hour drive of the St. Petersburg area: the Phillies (Clearwater), Yankees (Tampa), Blue Jays (Dunedin), Pirates (Bradenton) and Orioles (Sarasota). Further south on the Gulf coast are the Rays (Port Charlotte), Twins (Fort Myers) and Red Sox (Fort Myers).

Any move by the Braves likely will include public financing. Palm Beach County has pledged $108 million in public funds and the state another $50 million toward costs of building and financing the planned facilities for the Astros and Nationals.

Florida has a state fund dedicated to partnering with local governments to build or renovate spring training stadiums. The fund was set up to compete with the Cactus League in the Phoenix area, where 15 teams train.

Schuerholz has said the Braves would not move to Arizona.