NORTH PORT — What started as an idea inked on a napkin in Nashville opens this weekend as a $130-plus million Major League Baseball training facility in North Port’s West Villages.
On Sunday, the Atlanta Braves new Spring Training home hosts its first contest with the Braves playing the Tampa Bay Rays.
It’s just one game — but it is one that has been years in the making.
The stadium, named CoolToday Park, had its groundbreaking less than two years ago and has been under construction 24/7 since that day. It is hosting just one game this season — but becomes the permanent Spring Training home for the Braves for the next 30 years — at least.
But first, the first game.
“We’re bringing the Atlanta Braves into town and we’re going to introduce them to their new home,” said Mike Dunn, vice president and director of Florida operations for the Braves.
“North Port will be able to welcome the National League East champions to their city,” he said.
A media tour took place recently at the facility located in the West Villages.
The idea for bringing the Braves to the North Port area began in December 2015 when West Villages President Marty Black met with Braves leadership during Major League Baseball Winter Meetings in Nashville. On a napkin, Black and Braves officials sketched out a concept, he said.
By March 2016, there were intrigue and ideas and — eventually — the first dig of a shovel into ranchland about a mile southeast of Tamiami Trail and River Road.
For Dunn, the reward has been the process of seeing “the evolution of a grandiose ballpark.”
“You see it every day — things get complete. It’s all starting to come together. It’s a significant challenge but the reward is what you see … being able to come out of the ground from where we were 16 months ago at groundbreaking,” Dunn said.
The groundbreaking in October 2017 included officials from throughout the region who helped ante up millions in revenue to bring the napkin-concept to reality.
Speaking at a topping-off ceremony in July 2018, Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert noted Spring Training and its financial boost.
“Having Spring Training in Florida is the same as having the Super Bowl every year,” Detert said.
The media tour took a look inside and outside the facility. Aside from CoolToday Park, it also includes “six and a half practice fields, 55,000 square feet of clubhouse and fitness center for the Braves along with multi-purpose fields and public space that can be used for special events by the city of North Port and Sarasota County,” the Braves said in a news release earlier this year. “The complex will operate year-round with extended spring training for minor league teams, Gulf Coast League and Fall Instructional League.”
Work continues on the park and will continue until the park opens Saturday. Dunn says it’s small details that are being worked on ahead of opening.
During the media tour on March 20, Sarasota County Commission Chair Charles Hines spoke to the Sun about the completion of the project.
“(I’m) absolutely amazed, it’s incredible how much progress has been made,” Hines said.
Hines added that bringing the Braves to Sarasota County along with the Baltimore Orioles, makes the county ground zero for spring training.
“As a county commissioner I can’t even recall if I’ve received any complaints or issue in regards to construction here,” Hines said.
North Port City Manager Pete Lear echoed a similar sentiment about how quickly the project has come along.
“The joint effort of everybody involved the Braves, the West Villages, Sarasota County, the state of Florida making contributions as well as the city, it’s been unbelievable to watch,” Lear said.
Both Lear and Hines hope the fans will enjoy the stadium and having baseball in North Port and south Sarasota County.
Among the special events planned are movie nights using the 40-foot by 80-foot scoreboard — touted as the largest in any Spring Training facility — along with nights at the park where kids can run the bases and concerts.
The first special event takes place with an open house Saturday that begins at 10 a.m. and lasts until 3 p.m.
“There will be all kinds of activities on the plaza. There will be music, bands, DJs, face-painting,” Dunn said. “Then they’ll have the opportunity to come into the ball park … take pictures and see what it’s all about.”
Dunn talks a lot about the Braves and their attention to detail when it comes to its squad and facilities.
The Florida Economic Development Council named the stadium its regional “Deal of the Year,” citing the 139 jobs and $1.7 billion economic impact it should bring to Southwest Florida.
The team signed a 30-year lease for the property with funding for the project coming from the team, Sarasota County, West Villages and North Port.
The city of North Port and West Villages each paid $4.7 million. West Villages donated the land and built the road and utilities. Sarasota County provided $22 million from tourist development taxes and another $5.6 million in capital expenditures. The state pulled $20 million from its spring training retention fund toward the facility.
Dunn said the organization is here and wants to be a part of the community that, in turn, the community embraces.
“This is our new home,” he said. “It’s about the experience — and hopefully the experience converts you or makes you a Braves fan. More importantly, we want you to be a baseball fan and someone who wants to come out and enjoy what the ballpark has to offer.”