NORTH PORT, Fla. — Eighteen months ago, cattle grazed in a remote pasture in southwest Florida. On Sunday, the Braves will play a baseball game on that spot.
“We went from barren farm land and old orange groves to a state-of-the-art modern baseball facility,” said Mike Dunn, the Braves’ vice president of Florida operations. “It has been fun watching it come out of the ground and seeing the evolution of it.”
Welcome to the Braves’ new spring-training home, CoolToday Park, located in North Port, a city of 65,000 residents about 30 miles south of Sarasota.
The $125 million stadium, under construction since October 2017, will make its debut as the Braves play an exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Rays at 4:05 p.m. Sunday – the Braves’ final spring-training game in Florida this year before they head north for exhibitions at SunTrust Park on Monday and Tuesday and the regular-season opener Thursday in Philadelphia. The Braves will hold spring training in North Port next year and, under terms of their lease, another 29 years after that.
CoolToday Park, built with a mixture of public and private money, will become the Braves’ third spring-training site since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966. The Braves trained at Municipal Stadium in West Palm Beach, Fla., for their first 32 seasons in Atlanta and at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando for the next 22 seasons, including this one.
The Braves’ new spring home, designed in a relaxed coastal style with splashes of blue, yellow and red, has 6,200 green seats, a grassy berm beyond the outfield that can accommodate another 1,800 fans, a 360-degree lower-level concourse with unobstructed views of the field and a “Tomahawk Tiki Bar.” The stadium exudes Braves history, from a display of the franchise’s retired numbers in the entry plaza to giant banners of Braves greats hanging from the walls. An image of Hank Aaron swinging a bat is etched into the back of every seat.
The stadium is one mile off U.S. Highway 41 and about five miles from I-75, coincidentally the same highways that run past SunTrust Park in Cobb County. There are other similarities between the two stadiums, too: Their field dimensions are largely the same, and CoolToday Park has a group hospitality space at ground level beyond right field that mirrors SunTrust Park’s “Below the Chop.”
The 90-acre spring-training complex includes seven practice fields, 11 batting cages, 63 pitching mounds, a spacious clubhouse for the major-league team and all the latest training amenities for major- and minor-league players. Some 300 palm trees, many of them more than 30 feet tall, have been planted on the grounds. A picturesque pond and fountain have been added.
Construction of the stadium, which has a 20-year naming-rights deal with Sarasota air-conditioning company CoolToday, is complete except for finishing touches to be applied in the coming months. But construction is in the early stages on a second phase of the project: a 47,000-square-foot building that will serve as “Braves Academy,” a place where the organization’s minor-league players will receive training about everything from money management to nutrition to public speaking. The two-story building will include 60 dormitory-style rooms, classrooms, a theater and a cafeteria.
“It’s a huge component to the future of the Atlanta Braves,” Dunn said.
The academy building will cost an additional $15 million, ultimately raising the total cost of the complex to $140 million.
The complex is part of a 15,000-acre master-planned development called West Villages Florida. More than 4,000 houses have been sold in the development’s first eight neighborhoods, and ambitious long-term plans envision as many as 25,000 homes and as much as 3 million square feet of retail and office space being built over the next few decades.
Charles Hines, chairman of the Sarasota County Commission, said he sees the Braves’ facility as “transformational” for the southern part of the county and the “centerpiece” of future development.
“You’ve already got the golf courses. You’ve got the beaches that are pretty close,” he said. “This will add an amenity for people to enjoy an entire lifetime.”
Taxpayer money covered $46 million of the stadium cost — $21.3 million from Sarasota County, $20 million from the state of Florida and $4.7 million from the city of 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’ annual rent payments.
The remainder of the cost of the stadium and the full cost of the academy are the Braves’ responsibility, totaling north of $50 million in addition to their rent. A recent financial filing by team owner Liberty Media showed the Braves had $39 million in debt on the spring training facility as of Dec. 31, 2017, but had paid it off as of the end of 2018.
In addition to spring training, the complex will be used year-round by the Braves, including for their Gulf Coast League team, injury rehabilitation programs and various developmental purposes. But the main impetus for building the facility was to get closer to other teams’ spring-training camps, reducing what had become long bus rides to Grapefruit League road games from Disney.
“We just ran out of teams to play around there. Everybody left,” said Dunn, referring to other teams moving their spring-training camps out of central Florida over the years. “There will be a significant advantage to not being on long bus rides battling spring-break traffic.”
The new complex is within an hour’s drive of five other teams’ spring-training camps.
“You take a look at a map of the west coast of Florida, and Sarasota County is dead-center in regard to spring training,” Hines said.
Ticket prices for Grapefruit League games in CoolToday Park next spring will range from $10 for berm seating to $45 for seats behind home plate, according to the Braves. Sunday’s game is sold out.
Standing in the new stadium on a sunny, breezy day this week, Hines reminisced about the property’s history as ranch land. “The prior owners, the Taylors, I would go out with them, and we’d dove-hunt out here,” he said.
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