WEST VILLAGES — What started as an idea inked on a napkin in Nashville becomes reality this weekend in the form of a $130-plus million Major League Baseball training facility in West Villages.
On Sunday, the Atlanta Braves new Spring Training home hosts its first game with the Braves hosting the Tampa Bay Rays — just a long walk, or short bike-ride, from IslandWalk.
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. Trucks pulling into West Villages Parkway led to the closing of much of it to some areas — but has also led to the creation of a new road that will help with traffic.
Tucked about a mile off U.S. 41/Tamiami Trail and River Road, the stadium is near SCF-Venice and the new West Villages Marketplace — itself set to open later this year.
CoolToday Park 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 Wednesday 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 was intrigue and ideas and eventually in October 2017 the first dig of a shovel into ranch land.
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,” Dunn said.
The groundbreaking 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 Wednesday 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.”
Among the special events planned are movie nights using the 40-foot by 80-foot scoreboard — touted as the largest in Spring Training facilities — 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.
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.”