Sarasota County board votes to pursue spring-training deal with Braves

Braves’ lease at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., expires in 2017.

Combined ShapeCaption
Braves’ lease at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., expires in 2017.

Continuing their search for a new spring-training home, the Braves are in serious talks with officials in Sarasota County on Florida’s Gulf Coast about building a stadium there.

That brings to three the number of potential Florida locations in play for the Braves — the others are Palm Beach County and St. Petersburg — but the latest proposal may have the most momentum after a unanimous vote by Sarasota County commissioners Tuesday to pursue negotiations toward a possible deal.

The Braves, whose 20-year lease at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando expires after spring training 2017, are seeking a new spring home on either coast of Florida to get closer to other teams’ facilities and reduce travel time to exhibition games.

The Braves and Sarasota County officials are discussing a 100- to 150-acre site in the West Villages master-planned community in North Port, located in the southern part of the county. The concept under discussion calls for the West Villages’ developer to donate the land for the stadium complex and for money from local tourism taxes and the state of Florida to help pay for construction.

“We are excited and appreciative that West Villages and Sarasota County are working with us to potentially secure a beautiful state-of-the-art future spring-training location for the Braves,” John Schuerholz, the Braves’ president, said in a prepared statement.

County commissioners voiced both enthusiasm and caution about the project before voting 5-0 at Tuesday’s meeting — streamed online — to authorize county administrator Tom Harmer to continue negotiating the funding, design and construction details.

“There’s a long road, a tough road, ahead of us, so ‘cautionary excitement’ is what I would like to say,” commissioner Christine Robinson said.

“As they say, the devil is in the details. And that’s what negotiating is all about,” commissioner Carolyn Mason said. “I think it’s a great idea, but it could go absolutely nowhere.”

“This is a very, very big deal if it happens,” commission chairman Alan Maio said.

A ballpark estimate of the project’s cost is about $100 million.

The impetus for the Braves seeking to leave Disney is that only one Grapefruit League opponent, the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, will train within an hour’s drive after the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals relocate next year.

The negotiations with Sarasota County don’t remove from the Braves’ radar the two other potential spring-training sites reported earlier, although major obstacles exist with both the St. Petersburg and Palm Beach possibilities.

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

Last month, the Braves hired a South Florida lobbyist to pursue the possibility of a deal in Palm Beach County, where the team trained for 35 years before relocating to Disney in 1998. But there are questions about whether Palm Beach County would or could pour tax dollars into a Braves deal just one year after committing $108 million to a new West Palm Beach facility for the Astros and Nationals.

In an interview last month, Schuerholz said a stadium could be built and open in time for spring training 2018 if a deal is completed by around May of this year. If that doesn’t happen, he said, the Braves have a good relationship with Disney and could seek to extend their lease there for another year or so if necessary.

But first, the team and Sarasota County will determine if a deal can be done there quickly enough for a 2018 opening.

“I was asked first thing this morning, ‘So the Braves are coming?’ And the answer is, ‘No, that’s a little bit premature,’” Harmer said after the county commission’s vote. “This is an important step, but there are a lot of steps left. We are ready to keep working.”