North Port: Getting to know the Braves’ new spring training home

When the Braves open spring training, the biggest change won’t be the new players. It’ll be the new place.

Players constantly come and go, but the Braves will prepare for the season in their third spring training facility in 57 years. They trained at West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium from 1963-97 and at Disney's Wide World of Sports near Orlando from 1998 through 2019. On Wednesday, pitchers and catchers will report to the Braves' new $139 million complex in North Port.

Many Braves fans have asked: North Port? Where’s that? What’s that?

North Port is a southwest Florida city, incorporated in 1959, with a current population of 73,000. It’s located in the southern part of Sarasota County, about 12 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s between Tampa and Fort Myers.

“It’s much quainter, quieter than what Orlando had to offer after a ballgame,” North Port Mayor Debbie McDowell said.

For the Braves and their fans who travel to spring training, the 135-mile shift from the Orlando area to North Port brings dramatic differences. The new facility isn’t amid Disney World’s theme parks, but beaches are a short drive away. There’s less traffic congestion, but little commercial development yet in the immediate ballpark area except a newly opened Publix-anchored shopping center. Five other teams’ spring stadiums are conveniently located within an hour’s drive, whereas the Disney facility had become isolated from Grapefruit League opponents.

Mike Dunn, based in North Port year-round as the Braves’ vice president of Florida operations, offered this scouting report on the new locale:

“This region of Florida offers beautiful, beautiful beaches and a lot of great water activity. I often say it is reminiscent of ‘old Florida’ where it still has the grass-roots feel of the hometown areas as opposed to the toll booths and all the resorts,” Dunn said. “When you see the vastness of the green space, you know it is not totally developed yet. I think there is a peace of mind in that. The traffic is certainly not as cumbersome as in other markets we’ve been.

“But … there is not an amusement park; it is not the No. 1 vacation destination in the world. So some of the things you want to find, you’ll probably have to look for. But there is great fishing, great swimming and ... a lot of outdoor activities in the area.”

Although the Braves’ facility is in the North Port city limits, it has a mailing address of nearby Venice. North Port’s mayor acknowledged that has caused “a lot of confusion,” which she would like to clear up: “We have a ZIP code issue that we have no control over. It’s (up to) the post office,” McDowell said. “But the Braves stadium is not in Venice. … We’re excited to have the Braves in our city – in North Port.”

The stadium – called CoolToday Park as a result of a 20-year naming-rights deal with Sarasota air-conditioning company CoolToday -- is envisioned as the centerpiece of a 15,000-acre master-planned development called West Villages. The development currently has about 7,500 homes and anticipates 23,000 at full build-out, according to West Villages vice president of marketing Christine Masney. The Braves and local officials expect sharp growth of commercial development in the stadium area over the next few years.

McDowell noted the majority of land in North Port hasn’t been developed and some of it never will be, such as the 8,600-acre Myakka State Forest and the 5,700-acre Orange Hammock Ranch. But the city has added about 11,000 residents since 2017. “We are growing like crazy,” McDowell said.

The Braves chose North Port for their spring training home after a protracted search across Florida that included consideration of the St. PetersburgNaples and West Palm Beach areas. Ultimately, the Braves found the land they needed – and the public funding they sought -- in Sarasota County.

Taxpayer money covered $46 million of the cost of building the facility -- $21.3 million from Sarasota County, $20 million from the state of Florida and $4.7 million from North Port. West Villages’ private developer, Mattamy Homes, contributed $4.7 million and the land. The West Villages Improvement District issued $37.5 million in bonds that will be repaid over 30 years from the Braves’ rent payments. The remainder of the cost, about $50 million, was the Braves’ responsibility.

To see what they have built, drive 530 miles down I-75 from Atlanta. (CoolToday Park is six miles off I-75 and one mile off U.S. 41, coincidentally two highways that also run past the Braves’ regular-season home, Truist Park.) Or catch one of the multiple daily flights from Atlanta to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (35 miles from CoolToday Park), Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers (65 miles) or Tampa International Airport (83 miles).

“For two years, since the stadium started to be built, we’ve had people actually coming down from Atlanta on their vacations just to see where it is,” said Bill Gunnin, executive director of the North Port Area Chamber of Commerce.

The Braves will open this year’s exhibition schedule with a home game against Baltimore on Feb. 22. Before the exhibition schedule begins, CoolToday Park will open at 9 a.m. daily for fans who want to watch workouts.

The Braves and local officials have some concern about traffic flow in and out of the stadium on game days because River Road, which connects I-75 to West Villages, remains two-lane. The state of Florida plans to widen it, but that project hasn’t begun and likely won’t be completed for several years.

As for where fans can stay in the area: “A word of advice for fans who are coming,” Dunn said, “get accommodations quickly because (nearby) accommodations are limited.”

In fact, there’s only one hotel within the North Port city limits. Another is under construction, the first new hotel to be built in North Port since 1973. Several hotels are located nine miles from the ballpark along I-75 in Venice.

Across Sarasota County, there are about 6,000 “traditional hotel rooms” and 9,000 other accommodations, such as condos or houses offered as vacation rentals,  according to tourism marketing agency Visit Sarasota County. Last year, the county’s average hotel occupancy rate was 88.3% in February and 89.6% in March. The average room rates were $217 per night in February and $242 in March.

North Port doesn’t have a downtown. Much of the city’s commercial development is along Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) five or so miles from the Braves’ complex.

Numerous beaches are nearby. Englewood Beach is 12 miles from the stadium, Venice Beach about the same. The boutiques and restaurants of downtown Venice will beckon Braves fans, as will the city of Sarasota 30 miles from the ballpark.

CoolToday Park has 6,200 seats, with an image of Hank Aaron swinging a bat etched into the back of each one. A grassy berm beyond the outfield can accommodate another 1,800 fans.

Construction of the stadium began in October 2017 on former ranch land, where cattle had grazed a month earlier, with the Braves initially intending to hold spring training there in 2019. That was pushed back a year, although the Braves did play one exhibition game in the new stadium last spring. This year, they will fully use the 90-acre complex, which is contractually slated to be their spring home for the next three decades.

“I just cannot wait to welcome the people of Atlanta down here to the city of North Port,” said McDowell, the North Port mayor.