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Atlanta Braves might be fading from view in Toytown spring training plans

The Braves, who currently train at the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility at a Disney resort near Orlando, need to find a new spring home by 2018. [Getty Images]
Published Feb. 6, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — A plan to bring Atlanta Braves spring training to Toytown might be tanking.

Pinellas County staffers and SportsPark Partners LLC, a consortium that incudes the Braves, former major-league star Gary Sheffield and St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair, met Tuesday.

Representatives for LeClair and Sheffield attended.

But no Braves officials did.

Are the Braves still part of the ambitious project to build a spring training facility and amateur sports complex on the 240-acre former Pinellas County landfill?

"I honestly don't know," said Joe Lauro, the county's director of purchasing.

If the Braves have pulled out, it would be a quiet backing-away from the club's announcement in September that it was a partner in LeClair's project, which sent a tremor through Major League Baseball and local politics.

The club's plan asked for up to $10.5 million in annual bed tax revenue, which would have put a serious, perhaps fatal, dent in any plan to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in Pinellas County. If the Braves got that money for their facility, little if anything would be left for a new Rays stadium or any other team.

The Philadelphia Phillies train in Clearwater and the Toronto Blue Jays train in Dunedin.

Major League Baseball quickly issued a statement last year basically telling the Braves to back off while the Rays tried to reach a deal with the St. Petersburg City Council to look outside the city for a new stadium site.

The Pinellas County Commission put on the brakes, too, while letting the St. Petersburg City Council do what it needed to close a deal quickly to let the Rays look for a new stadium in Hillsborough.

Last month, the City Council did just that, allowing the team to look in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for three years for its next home.

Now that the closed-door negotiations on SportsPark's Toytown plans have begun, county officials can't go into details, Lauro said. But the negotiations won't be speedy, lasting at least six months, he said.

The Braves declined comment. Representatives for LeClair and Sheffield also didn't return calls.

Mike Meidel, the county's economic development director, said the county could still possibly fund a Braves spring training facility and a new stadium for the Rays.

"It would be tight," he said.

Meidel said the team might have to settle for less county money. Meidel also pointed to West Palm Beach, where the Astros and Nationals are teaming up to build a $144 million facility with Palm Beach County. Both of those teams are contributing millions of dollars to the project.

The West Palm Beach site is also being constructed on a former landfill, which has resulted in some higher-than-expected costs to clear debris and trash. It's slated to open in 2017.

The Braves, who currently train at the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility at a Disney resort near Orlando, need to find a new spring home by 2018.

The team trained in West Palm Beach from 1962 to 1997 before moving to Orlando in 1998. But after the recent departures of the Astros and Nationals from Central Florida, only the Braves and Tigers in Lakeland remain. That's a lot of long bus drives.

And with LeClair and Sheffield's plans calling for a five-year construction phase, the Braves would be faced with the possibility of opening a new ballpark surrounded by cranes and earthmovers — hardly a pleasing prospect.

Still, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said he's optimistic that the Braves will end up at Toytown. And he thinks a deal can be inked to keep the Rays in Pinellas.

"I want it all," Welch said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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