An aerial view from late January shows the Atlanta Braves’ new spring training complex in North Port, Fla. (Courtesy Atlanta Braves)

Natural habitats, rising developments surround new CoolToday Park

Baby alligators, turtles, wild boars and baseball. What else could you want from spring training?

CoolToday Park, the Atlanta Braves’ $120 million spring training complex under construction in North Port, Fla., has its fair share of critters, including young gators inhabiting a retention pond near the minor league fields behind the stadium.

“Watch where you step,” said Pendulum Studio’s Jonathan Cole, the Kansas City sports architect teaming with local firm Fawley Bryant to design the ballpark.

The site, situated 35 miles south of Sarasota, is part of an old cattle ranch that once spanned 10,000 acres of farmland on Florida’s west coast. The ballpark and other developments are slowly encroaching on the state’s natural habitat.

Such is life. It’s all part of the fan experience as the Major League Baseball team starts a new chapter in its 148-year history. The Braves relocate from Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, where they’ve held spring training since 1997.

They’ll host a series of soft openings in the week leading up to the March 24 Grapefruit League finale against Cincinnati. Atlanta’s first 14 home spring training games, including split squad matchups, will be in Orlando.

The project is a joint effort between the Braves, the state of Florida, the city of North Port, Sarasota County and the West Villages district, which controls the land where the complex sits. It’s part of a massive mixed-use development extending to a retail and entertainment district and thousands of single-family homes.

Mattamy Homes, a Canadian firm, is also involved in the development. Apart from the Braves’ project, the first phase includes a Publix supermarket just off U.S. 41 and West Villages Parkway, which sits about one mile northwest of CoolToday Park. The grocery is expected to open for 2020 spring training, Braves officials said.

“We’re in the middle of a building boom,” said Michael Dunn, the Braves’ vice president of Florida operations. “Technically, five subdivisions border the complex. They’re projecting over 1,500 homes built a year for the next five years. It will have a ‘center city,’ live-work-play feeling and the stadium will anchor a lot of it.”

The project, built by the team of Tandem Construction + Barton Malow, was driven in part by the Braves’ finding themselves among the few teams still conducting spring training in central Florida. North Port, meanwhile, is within a 45-minute drive of Sarasota, Bradenton and Port Charlotte, where the Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays, respectively, have spring training homes. Fort Myers, where the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins hold spring training, is a one-hour drive from the Braves’ new complex.

“It was huge factor in us leaving Orlando,” Dunn said. “We would travel on a bus for multiple hours, which is not conducive for what you want to do in the spring.”

For the Braves, a critical piece of their development is the academy, a building that sits in the middle of the complex. The $15 million facility, scheduled to open in early 2020, will be home for 100 of the team’s top prospects, featuring a dormitory, an auditorium and a cafeteria, among other spaces.

More MLB teams are integrating those facilities into their spring training complex as they consolidate that piece of baseball operations from places like the Dominican Republic. The Twins have a “phenomenal one” in Fort Myers, Dunn said, and the Braves used it as a model for their academy.

“It’s a focal point for our system with classroom settings for young players,” he said. “We teach them nutrition, money management, public speaking. It’s a way-of-life curriculum.”

When it opens later this month, the ballpark itself will celebrate the Braves’ rich history. The image of Hank Aaron swinging a bat is etched into the 6,200 fixed seats, and 40-foot-tall graphics celebrating Hall of Famers such as Greg Maddux and John Smoltz decorate stair towers leading to the stadium. Famous phrases uttered by Braves greats will adorn the main concourse floor.

Hank Aaron’s image is part of the graphic etched into the park’s 6,200 fixed seats. (Courtesy Atlanta Braves)

The theme extends outside the park’s main entrance to the Braves’ retired numbers in monument form.

Veteran baseball executive John Schuerholz, the team’s vice chairman, requested that architects show fans the “Braves way” through design, according to Cole.

“We want them to feel that Braves history when they circulate through the stadium,” he said.

Some features are modeled after SunTrust Park in Atlanta, which the Braves opened in 2017. CoolToday Park’s field dimensions mimic the big-league venue. The Centauri Super Suite at field level in the right field corner is similar to the Coors Light Below the Chop, a group space at SunTrust Park.

Under the stands, a 6,000-square-foot bunker space targeted for future development is a concept borrowed from the Delta Sky360 Club at the Atlanta stadium. In Florida, 120 people will pay membership fees for exclusive access to that room, Dunn said.

Seventy percent of CoolToday Park’s seats are in the shade, a critical piece of design for all spring training parks in Florida and Arizona. In North Port, most games will start at 1 p.m. Eastern Time, and the entire infield will be shaded at that time, Cole said.

Hospitality spaces include the Tomahawk Tiki Bar in the left field corner, which will be open year-round to local residents as a lunch and dinner option. On non-game days, hours of operation will be 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The Braves are running the stadium food in-house.

On the terrace level, one floor above the main concourse, are two group spaces tied to 650 seats split along the first and third base lines. The ticket package includes an upscale BBQ menu and an indoor lounge. Tickets cost $30 a person for both season tickets and single games, Dunn said.

Three patio suites behind home plate were sold to corporate businesses, including CoolToday, the air conditioning, plumbing and electrical services contractor that holds the park’s naming rights.

Ticket prices run as low as $5 for the left field berm. The SunTrust Pavilion, an elevated section of 450 seats in right-center field, has $10 tickets with views to the Braves bullpen below.

The top ticket price of $50 is for seats in the first few rows directly behind home plate.

The Braves have sold more than 2,200 season tickets on multiyear deals, which includes the March 24 game. Sixty percent of buyers live in southwest Florida. The remaining 40 percent is split between central Florida residents and those living out of state, Dunn said.

“In spring training, you have two types of fans — the baseball fan and the team fan,” he said. “People come to the west coast and make a weekend of it. In Florida, everybody says they’re a Braves fan because of (superstation) TBS. Before expansion, we were the closest major league team for a lot of people.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised. Tandem Construction was involved in the construction of the ballpark with Barton Malow.