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Sarasota Herald Tribune (Florida)
NORTH PORT - Local leaders this week scratched off two more items on their to-do list for an Atlanta Braves spring training complex in the West Villages development in North Port.
The first came with the West Villages' submission on Monday of the final grant application for $20 million in state stadium funding necessary to complete the $75 million to $80 million proposed public-private financing deal.
The second came Tuesday afternoon when North Port city leaders endorsed a licensing agreement with the team that allows for regular public use of the complex outside of baseball games, satisfying concerns commissioners have raised over the past few months.
The progress on both items is arguably the midway point in series of steps needed to finalize the planned stadium
complex that will include the roughly 8,000-seat stadium, team practice facilities and public multi-use fields near U.S. 41 and River Road in the massive West Villages commercial and residential district.
It sets the stage for the critical next few months to wrap up funding and technical design of the complex in time for an expected September groundbreaking and ambitious construction schedule to open for spring training in 2019.
"There are a lot of moving parts and pieces, but this certainly is a critical one," Sarasota County Economic Development Director Jeff Maultsby told North Port commissioners late Tuesday afternoon.
Maultsby has helped lead negotiations with the team over the past two years with Marty Black, who leads the West Villages Improvement District, a special tax authority established for the 11,000-acre area to oversee major infrastructure for the development.
The district is formally overseeing the construction of the baseball complex, which will revert to county ownership once complete, so it made the formal grant application to the Florida Sports Foundation and state for eligible spring training stadium incentives. Local officials have worked with the foundation on the plan since before it was even announced publicly early last year and expect that funding to be approved after the required state reviews.
The agreement approved by the city Tuesday follows in the footsteps of the facility operating agreement struck between the county and the Braves last month, which was a crucial piece of that state grant application.
The licensing agreement between the team and North Port spells out the city's permission to use the main stadium facility for three city-sponsored events each year, in the same manner the county is granted another seven such events.
Some North Port commissioners quizzed a team attorney about the legal language of the events clause, questioning if the two agreements together allow a minimum or maximum of three city events. The city's agreement notes a minimum of three and the county operating agreement specifically notes the city can request additional events.
With a few clerical changes, the City Commission voted 4-1 to approve the agreement.
Only Mayor Linda Yates dissented, arguing the city is not receiving enough benefits in exchange for its support of the project - including yet-to-be-determined city financing.
"At this point, for me, it's just been disappointing and it's primarily because of what's being asked and has yet to come," she said. "There's so much that hasn't been done yet and a lot of unknowns ... I'm not comfortable with it at all."
Funding and specific costs are at the heart of the outstanding agreements still under negotiation.
North Port is set to consider during its budget process this summer a plan to contribute $300,000 per year for the next 30 years to the stadium financing, but it has yet to have a detailed discussion of how it would fund those payments.
The sum would join the expected $20 million grant, almost $22 million in funding from county tourist taxes and the remainder from annual and upfront contributions from the West Villages and team.
Also being negotiated is the formal development agreement for the construction of the project, including the eventual guaranteed maximum price. The West Villages has picked contractors Brasfield & Gorrie and Willis Smith Construction to lead the project, despite some questions about their selection, and will negotiate that development agreement with them this summer, Black has said.
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