Secret spring training documents provide insight on Braves' Sarasota negotiations

UPDATE: Following a response from Sarasota County, the below article was updated to reflect the fact that the county has not agreed to many of the team's terms.

After a protracted public records battle with Sarasota County, 10Investigates obtained public records exchanged between the county and the Atlanta Braves that reveal several concessions the major league team appears to be seeking from the county during negotiations over its future spring training home.

Sarasota County had previously claimed the records were confidential, but 10Investigates pressed county leaders on their “trade secrets” public records exemption to obtain several draft agreements between the Braves and developer West Villages over the past two years.

The county tells 10Investigates it has not agreed to any of the terms of the deal yet, other than contributing bed tax revenues to a new stadium, making annual contributions to a capital improvements fund, and assuming ownership of the facility after construction is completed.

But comparing the Braves’ initial letter of intent to its most recent letter, several significant changes were made during the course of negotiations for their proposed deal:

  • A "community benefits" clause was removed from the agreement, which would have allowed Sarasota County to host public meetings, conventions, conferences, non-profit events, and amateur sporting events at the facility when the Braves were not using it.  However, a county representative says that is a non-negotiable.
  • A "construction materials sales taxes" clause was added, asking Sarasota County to use "reasonable best efforts" to ensure construction materials will be exempt from state and local sales taxes.  However, that may run afoul of state law since the county will not be the owner of the facility during construction.
  • A clause was added to ensure the Braves "shall have no obligation to provide its financials to (the county) or any other third party during the term of such debt."
  • A "cost overruns" clause was added to require Sarasota County to pick up an additional $20 million in project financing if state financing cannot be secured.  However, a county representative says there is "no deal" without the state funding.
  • The Braves also got the county to agree to contribute a yet-to-be-disclosed annual amount to a capital improvement fund for repairs and replacements to the facility and surrounding player housing. In original drafts, the team was responsible for all capital improvements.
  • The county will also be asked to ban street vendors within half a mile of the ballpark.

Sarasota learned the hard way in 2009, while negotiating with the Orioles, that anything not in writing is far from guaranteed.  10Investigates exposed how a promised Cal Ripken youth facility was never delivered because the county never got it in writing.

Other notable clauses in the latest draft contract:

  • Make the county the "owner" of the property, but provide the Braves with year-round control of the facility.  This insures the team will not have to pay property taxes.
  • The Braves also retain "all revenues" from events held at the "public" facility, including parking on county property.
  • The Braves will pay for the day-to-day maintenance and operating expenses to operate the facility.
  • The Braves will pay the developer somewhere between $3.75 million and $4.5 million per year for rent, but according to documents, the team "wants to make no up-front capital contribution to development/construction of the Facility."
  • The 30-year lease is actually a 20-year lease, since the Braves can opt out anytime in the final 10 years of the contract, provided they give the county 12 months' notice and pay off any outstanding public debt (if any still exists) on the project.  Here's more on the 2014 state law that made it easier for MLB teams to break spring training leases.

The project is estimated to be complete by January 2018 and is expected to be financed by four parties:

  • The West Villages is donating $7 to $9 million worth of land, plus $12 to $20 million in infrastructure costs;
  • The City of North Port will contribute $4 to $5 million;
  • Sarasota County plans to contribute approximately $22 million from its bed tax collections;
  • The state is being counted on to pay for $20 million in construction.

Find 10 Investigates reporter Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Read his Sports Business Blog at Shadow of the Stadium.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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