Atlanta Braves break ground on spring training complex

18 October 2017

It took local officials and Atlanta Braves executives more than two years to negotiate and finalize a plan to build a new spring training complex in North Port.

Now the team and construction crews have just 16 months to actually build it.

The race to the Braves’ first pitch in February 2019 officially began Monday when local officials and team executives formally broke ground on the site of the planned $100 million stadium complex in the West Villages.

Standing in the middle of what is now just a pasture off U.S. 41 and River Road, leaders hailed the project as a boon for North Port and the entire area and marveled at the transformation that must take place over the next year.

“This is finally happening,” said Marty Black, the West Villages district executive who has led negotiations since the beginning. “It’s been a lot of fun, sometimes a bit stressful, but all this time later and it’s finally going to become a reality.”

Braves Vice Chairman John Schuerholz welcomed a crowd of more than 100 fans, residents and local elected officials as new “friends and neighbors” to the team during a short opening ceremony in the sweltering heat.

“We look forward to being a fantastic neighbor and enjoying many many years of baseball — 30 of them at least — together with you, our great new partners, our great new friends and our great new neighbors,” he said.

The current plans for an 80-acre complex with an 8,000-seat stadium, practice fields, multipurpose public fields, public plaza and an eventual player development academy originally began as crude sketches by Black and Schuerholz on breakfast napkins. That’s when the two first met face-to-face in 2015 in Nashville during the Major League Baseball winter team meetings and they have been working in tandem ever since.

“We both had the same interest, we both had the same goal, we both had the same willingness to work together to try to find a way to make it work,” Schuerholz said. “In those details, scratched on those napkins, a plan was born and here we find ourselves today getting ready to start construction on this magnificent complex.”

“This project, which is, I believe, by the way, the second-most important project we’ve done not far behind that great facility we built recently in Atlanta,” he added. “Because this will provide us with the future of our playing talent and the success of our major league team.”

In a quiet moment, before the ceremony began, Schuerholz signed a copy of “The Game” by Jon Pessah. The book details the behind-the-scenes business of baseball, including interviews with Schuerholz, and he and Black discussed the book when their negotiations first began. Now the pair have brokered their own deal, so Black had Schuerholz sign a copy for a copy for Gulf Coast Builders Exchange Director Mary Dougherty-Slapp..

The ceremony Monday capped what has been a roller coaster ride to land the Braves since negotiations with the team were first made public in March 2016. For a time the Braves flirted with other counties for possible stadium deals, then West Villages officials flirted with other teams to join the Braves and, just last week, the primary contractor hired to oversee the project switched course and handed the job off to a local firm.

Now Sarasota-based Tandem Construction inherits the project with an incredibly ambitious construction schedule to complete at least the stadium in time for when pitchers and catchers report to camp in February 2019.

Schuerholz and Black have said the change will not affect the final construction schedule. Designs and site work began on the acreage months ago to jumpstart the project — well before any of the local governments or state finalized their financial contributions in an “act of trust” from the team, Black said.

Schuerholz recalled the same pasture-to-stadium transformation happened almost as quickly about 20 years at a development called Abacoa in Jupiter. Another mixed-used development that is now the spring training home to the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, that project is remarkably similar to the site in the West Villages.

However, it is possible the stadium could be finished by then while the remainder of training facilities are not complete, Black suggested last week.

“We know it can be done and we’re going to side by side with them to see to it that by 2019 we’re playing spring training baseball here in beautiful North Port,” Schuerholz said.

“Let’s get the bulldozers going,” he joked.