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Atlanta Braves call off talks, move on from Collier County as spring training site

By Laura Layden of the Naples Daily News

It appears Collier County has struck out with the Atlanta Braves.

A face-to-face meeting between team representatives and county leaders planned for Wednesday has been called off. The team has decided not to continue talks about the possibility of making Collier County its spring training home because the county can’t meet the tight deadline for having a new stadium built by spring 2018, said Gary Price, a partner in Naples-based Fifth Avenue Advisors.

“We’ve always known the 2018 requirement could be a show stopper for us,” he said.

The team has been also eyeing locations in Palm Beach and Sarasota counties, with at least one of them promising to build a stadium by 2018.

“Apparently Sarasota has promised them 2018. I don’t know that they are any further along with their site plans so I’m not sure how they are going to deliver 2018, but I’ve been told they can,” Price said.

Price and others in his financial advisory firm have worked feverishly to bring the team and Major League Baseball to Collier. From the start, he said he was honest with team representatives telling them the county couldn’t meet its aggressive deadline, but the team wanted to continue talks anyway — even after county commissioners rejected the Braves’ preferred site along Collier Boulevard near Interstate 75 last month.

Price looked forward to introducing the team to County Manager Leo Ochs and other county leaders to talk about building the project at another site, he said, but then came the disappointing call from a Braves representative last week saying: “We are not going to consider any site at this moment that can’t deliver on a 2018 completion.”

“The Braves have always been professional. They’ve always told us the truth. They’ve always told us 2018 is their goal. So none of this surprises us. Nothing about this shocks us,” Price said.

Nearly a month ago, Fifth Avenue Advisors presented county commissioners with a plan to build a stadium on 160 acres of residentially zoned land owned by Naples-Stock Development directly off Collier Boulevard south of Forest Glen Golf & Country Club. Residents packed the commission chambers to oppose the location because it was too close to their homes, and all five commissioners said they were concerned about the proposed site in a residential area before rejecting it.

Price’s team, working with county officials, had identified an alternative site at City Gate, a 288-acre commercial project off Collier Boulevard near Interstate 75. The project is zoned for 2.9 million square feet of buildings and commercial, light industry, office, warehouse and distribution uses. It’s a mile deep along the Golden Gate canal, east of the interstate.

The new proposal would have put the stadium on about 75 to 100 acres of undeveloped land behind two hotels at City Gate and would have included ball fields on neighboring land owned by the county. Though the county-owned land spans 300 acres, it could take years to get all the required state and federal approvals to develop the vacant property so that’s why it made sense to include land at City Gate, which would be quicker to rezone, Price said.

The private group’s ultimate goal was to introduce county and team representatives to each other and to get them talking directly. That never happened, but it’s not the county’s fault, Price said. After county commissioners rejected the first site, he said Ochs and others, including Nick Casalanguida, a deputy county manager, immediately got to work in search of a more suitable location.

“We tried everything we could to pull all the pieces together,” Price said.

Ron Rice, president of City Gate, said he was thrilled with the idea of having a stadium built on his land. After learning the county had rejected the Braves’ first chosen site, he said he reached out to county leaders and the team’s former president and general manager, John Schuerholz, who has a part-time home in Naples, to offer up his site for consideration. Rice said when he directed Schuerholz to his website to see an aerial view of his project, he immediately liked it, responding, “Wow what a great site at Collier Boulevard and I-75 and two hotels right by it.”

There was no way to deliver the stadium at City Gate by 2018 because it would have required changes to a development of regional impact and a planned unit development, or PUD.

“It can’t be done that quickly,” Rice said. “It simply can’t. Nobody has land that’s zoned for this kind of use. Are you kidding?”

If the team, which is looking to relocate from Walt Disney World in Orlando, could wait another year, Collier might still be in the game.

“The problem was they had to be out of Disney’s site and into a stadium by February of 2018,” Rice said. “Now if it had been February of ’19 we could have done it.”

He’s happy that at least his site was considered.

“The fact that it didn’t materialize it’s not the end of the world,” Rice said. “We didn’t buy that piece of property to build a baseball stadium. We’re not upset. We are disappointed we couldn’t meet the deadline of 2018.”

County Commissioner Donna Fiala said she would be delighted with a location at City Gate away from homes. However, she said, the location wasn’t her only concern. She was worried about where the money would come from to build the stadium and what it would cost taxpayers.

“They are talking about millions and millions of dollars and I don’t think Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer are going to spend millions, millions and millions. They might be willing to pay a small part of it. We’d have to ask them,” Fiala said.

Under the plan proposed by Fifth Avenue Advisors, the stadium would have cost the county nearly $135 million in tourist tax dollars to build, finance, operate and maintain over 30 years. The county would pay a little over $3 million a year to start, and its payments would increase yearly until more than doubling in 30 years to $6.4 million.

Fifth Avenue Advisors estimates spring training would spur $20 million a year in spending outside the stadium during the six weeks the team would be there.

Collier County Commissioner Tim Nance said he wasn’t surprised to hear the Braves don’t want to continue talks here. While he’s not talked to anyone from the team, he understands the deadlines that can come with big economic development projects.

“The county for its part has to catch up to that schedule,” he said. “They are not operating on the county’s schedule, they are operating on their own private schedule.”

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Avi Adkins is a seasoned journalist with a passion for storytelling and a keen eye for detail. With years of experience in the field, Adkins has established himself as a respected figure in journalism.

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