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Toytown proposal would bring Atlanta Braves spring training to Pinellas County

This rendering of a proposed sports facility on St. Petersburg’s Toytown landfill includes a spring training home for the Atlanta Braves, with a stadium and practice fields in the foreground. It would include an amateur baseball complex and field house.
Published Sep. 23, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG

More than a century after Major League Baseball arrived in Pinellas County and six years after the Tampa Bay Rays shifted their preseason games south to Port Charlotte, another big-league team wants to hang its spring training cleats in Pinellas County.

The Atlanta Braves, former baseball star and Tampa native Gary Sheffield and a local developer want to build a stadium, arena, practice fields and hotel rooms on the former Toytown landfill, transforming the 240-acre property into the county's third MLB spring training complex.

And the county appears interested. An evaluation committee recently ranked the Braves plan first out of three competing bids from developers responding to the county's request for proposals. The landfill has been closed since 1983, and the county has struggled to find a use for the massive mid-county site. In 2008, officials approved a mixed-use development that fell victim to the recession.

The Braves even suggested potentially revamping their plans to accommodate another major-league team. Two teams sharing spring training facilities is a growing trend. The Toronto Blue Jays considered leaving Dunedin and joining the Houston Astros in a shared complex in West Palm Beach before that deal fell through last year.

The Phillies have held spring training in Clearwater since 1948.

The Braves would partner with Sheffield and St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair to pay the county $500,000 per year for 40 years for the land for a $20 million purchase price.

In exchange, they promise a $662 million investment to create an "international destination" for amateur and professional sports, catering to elite youth athletes after the big-leaguers break camp.

The new stadium could be open by the 2018 season.

SportsPark Partners LLC's plan isn't the only proposal for the site. Another plan includes a solar panel complex that would power a hotel, movie theater and stores, while a third offers a more traditional town center concept.

The County Commission will take up the matter in late October or early November. Last week, an evaluation committee ranked SportsPark first, the town center concept second and the solar array third, said Joseph Lauro, the county's director of purchasing.

Sheffield and business partner James Talton tried to develop a similar, albeit more modest, concept in Pasco County last year, even mentioning the Braves as a potential spring training partner.

The project died in December when the Pasco County Commission voted to terminate the contract to build a 100-acre complex after the group failed to raise enough money to pay for preliminary costs.

The Braves plan triggers a host of questions for the Rays, who declined to comment Tuesday.

How will the Braves' possible purchase of one of the remaining large parcels of land in Pinellas County affect the Rays search for a new stadium? Will the project compete for public dollars that the Rays would need for a new stadium?

And will the new project provide an incentive to end a standoff between the Rays and the City Council?

For County Commissioner Ken Welch, it's a ringing wake up call for both sides.

"My hope is that it would bring added urgency to that discussion. We can't stand still forever," Welch said.

SportsPark has requested county funding of up to $10.5 million annually if two MLB teams end up at Toytown or $6.5 million each year if it's just the Braves.

That would likely siphon away county tourist development tax revenue, long viewed as a major source of funding for a new Rays stadium, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said.

"When you have a limited amount of resources, it's kind of first in," said Kriseman, referring to the stiff competition for tourist tax dollars. "It's another reason why it's really important to move forward with the Rays."

Kriseman said City Council members who oppose letting the team look outside St. Petersburg under terms defeated in a council vote last year need to re-evaluate their positions.

Council member Jim Kennedy doesn't see it that way. Kennedy voted against a deal championed by Kriseman last year.

"This is just more evidence that this is the place for (the Rays) to be," Kennedy said, who believes the team can find a suitable new stadium in St. Petersburg.

The proposed complex would be much like the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at the Disney resort near Orlando, where the Braves are under contract for one more year. It's designed by Populous — a leading sports architecture firm that is building the Braves new stadium in suburban Atlanta — and would include a 10,000-seat baseball stadium with berm seating for an additional 1,000 fans, a 15,000-seat fieldhouse for basketball or other indoor events, a track and field facility with 20,000 seats, an aquatic center with a pool and hockey rink and a 200,000-square-foot dormitory that could house 800 people.

At first glance, the plan's amateur aspects bears some resemblance to the nationally known IMG Academy in Bradenton, a private high school for elite athletes. But the stadiums, arena and visitor facilities appear to make this project much more public — and expansive.

Part of the 258-page Toytown proposal is a letter from Braves president John Schuerholz to Sheffield, confirming "extensive discussions" about the proposal and "significant interest" in "exploring a partnership." The Braves are "especially interested," he writes, "given the youth sports initiative and positive impact it will provide to kids of all ages, backgrounds and circumstances."

Schuerholz said he hoped to reach a deal by the end of the year and start construction in 2016.

The Braves didn't respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Neither did Sheffield nor LeClair. Major League Baseball declined to comment.

The Braves' potential move would be the latest in a realignment of Grapefruit League spring training.

With the recently announced departure of the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros to a new spring training facility in West Palm Beach, the Braves are one of only two teams left in Central Florida, along with the Detroit Tigers.

Last month, Schuerholz told the Atlanta Business Chronicle that the team is pondering a move to either coast so that it's closer to the competition.

On Tuesday, the Blue Jays struck a neutral tone on their potential future neighbor.

"As the Toronto Blue Jays are still in the process of working out their own situation moving forward in Dunedin, it wouldn't be appropriate for us to comment about what the Atlanta Braves are doing," said Jay Stenhouse, a Blue Jays spokesman.

The project estimates annual revenues of more than $800 million, including rooms in new lodging on the site and fees from hosting tournaments beyond spring training. The plan promises to create 3,361 jobs and inject $31 million annually into county coffers through increased tax revenue.

"It's a big deal," St. Petersburg council member Karl Nurse said. "Taking a closed garbage dump and redoing it is obviously a huge thing."

And he cheered the possibility of bringing spring training back to St. Petersburg's doorstep

"The Braves — at one point — were the team of the South," Nurse said. "Bringing spring training back here I think is a helpful thing."

Times staff writer Greg Auman and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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