Florida officials OK financing for Atlanta Braves spring training facility

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BRADENTON, Fla. – The Atlanta Braves have inked a deal for public financing of a new spring training facility on Florida’s west coast just two years after receiving government support for their home ballpark in Cobb County, Ga.

Sarasota County, the city of North Port, and the West Villages Improvement District signed off on 30-year stadium development agreements in the last few weeks.

The agreements include public financing toward a $100.5 million, 8,000-seat ballpark that is expected to open in time for Major League Baseball spring training in 2019.

The facility will have luxury suites, six full practice fields, separate major and minor league clubhouses and 750 paved public parking spaces. The ballpark will be built in the West Villages Improvement District, a commercial and residential development in southern Sarasota County where the developer has donated 94 acres of land for the project.

North Port city commissioners on Sept. 19 were the last to give the final approval necessary on the facility, paving the way for the team to pay for work on the stadium to begin before the financing is in place.

“We are pleased to move forward after this final approval and we look forward to building a world-class facility that will bring Braves baseball to West Villages, the city of North Port and Sarasota County,” Braves vice chairman John Schuerholz said in a statement on MLB.com. “On behalf of the Braves, we thank all those who worked so diligently to make this happen.”

When Sarasota County officials signed off on their part of the deal Sept. 13, Commissioner Michael Moran said he believed the facility would be a “huge economic stimulator” for the region.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Commissioner Alan Maio, referring to negotiations that have taken place for several years. “This is a great day for our county.”

The Braves will be moving to the new facility from Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando, where the team has played since 1998.

Luring the team to south Sarasota County was a joint effort of the local parties that took more than two years to accomplish, said Martin Black, chairman of the West Villages Board of Supervisors.

“It’s been a really good process,” Black said Wednesday, adding that the team is making a “significant investment” in the region. “The Atlanta Braves have been really professional.”

Black said bringing the Braves to the West Villages will help further the goal of developing the area as a sports destination in conjunction with State College of Florida, where discussions are taking place to offer sports medicine and sports management training programs.

“It’s a pure economic opportunity,” he said. “We’re excited.”

Sarasota County officials agreed to formally negotiate with the team for a spring training facility in March 2016. A letter of intent and term sheet was approved earlier this year. County commissioners in May approved the use of tourist development tax revenues to support its share of the project. The tax is charged on hotels and other kinds of overnight accommodations.

The complex deal involves the city, the county, West Villages, the state of Florida, the Atlanta National League Baseball Club LLC, and developer Calben Corp.

The financing plan calls for three tranches of taxable and tax-exempt bonds to be issued.

The biggest chunk will be $37.45 million of bonds backed by the team's annual lease fee for up to 30 years. The bonds will be issued by West Villages in a private placement. West Villages will also issue $14.43 million of revenue bonds secured by a sales tax rebate offered through the state of Florida’s Spring Training Retention Fund.

Sarasota County will competitively issue $21.26 million of revenue bonds using tourist tax revenues to pay the debt service.

Officials involved with the financings currently plan to approve bond sale documents by the end of October. All three tranches are expected to be issued concurrently in November. Closing is anticipated to be in December.

Cash contributions will round out the $100.5 million cost of construction. The Braves will pay $18 million toward the project. North Port will pay $4.7 million, and the developer will pay $4.7 million.

PFM Financial Advisors LLC is advising both Sarasota County and West Villages. Bond counsel for Sarasota County is Holland & Knight. Disclosure counsel is Bryant Miller Olive.

For West Villages, SunTrust Robinson Humphrey Inc. will be the placement agent for the private placement bonds and the underwriter for the public offering of sales tax bonds. Bryant Miller Olive is bond counsel. Hopping Green & Sams is disclosure and district counsel.

Fawley Bryant Architects Inc. is designing the facility. Brasfield & Gorrie LLC is the construction contractor.

The new ballpark will be owned by Sarasota County. The team is providing bridge funding to begin construction, which is already underway. A ceremonial groundbreaking will take place Oct. 16.

In addition to annual lease payments that will cover debt service on the privately placed bonds, the Braves are responsible for construction cost overruns and will make annual contributions of $5.6 million over 30 years for maintenance. The Braves have also entered into a non-relocation agreement that requires the team to pay off outstanding debt if the agreement is breached.

The Braves are no stranger to the hunt for taxpayer subsidies. In September 2015, the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibit Hall Authority issued $376.6 million of taxable bonds on behalf of Cobb County for the public financing component of team's new regular season home stadium.

The 30-year, fixed-rate bonds were sold competitively and rated AAA by Fitch Ratings and S&P Global Ratings, and Aaa by Moody's Investors Service.

The 42,000-seat stadium, which is named SunTrust Park, cost about $700 million. It is located between Interstate 285 and I-75 in Georgia. In addition to paying for a portion of the stadium, the Braves also built an adjacent 1.5-million-square-foot mixed-use development with shops, restaurants, offices, residences and entertainment venues called The Battery Atlanta.

The Battery is also home to an Omni Hotel, as well as Comcast’s regional office headquarters with 1,000 employees, and what the Braves call an “innovation lab dedicated to developing a growing workforce of technologists, engineers and software architects.”

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Revenue bonds Private placements Tax-exempt bonds Taxable bonds Public finance Florida