NORTH PORT — Mike Dunn, vice president of Florida Operations for the Atlanta Braves, always generates excitement when he talks to local groups about the ongoing construction on the team’s new $140 million spring training facility in the West Villages.
That alone made him a natural to give the afternoon keynote address Friday at the 2018 North Port Real Estate Summit.
The man who preceded him on the dais, Ron Starner, senior vice president of Conway Inc., the corporate parent company to Site Selection Magazine, set Dunn up perfectly when he called the Braves’ decision to move spring training to North Port “the signature win that most communities around the state would sell their first born for.”
Site Selection is a 65-year-old publication that tracks corporate real estate expansion. Starner talked about how major corporations are primarily looking for sites to relocate headquarters and back-office work and advanced manufacturing.
He cited some recent corporate perceptions of North Port that ranged from total unfamiliarity or labeling it as a bedroom community, or citing some potential but lack of proper promotion of its assets. Another recognized the city as being open to new business with low impact fees and attractive land cost compared to Tampa and Orlando.
“It tells me, you have an undiscovered gem on your hands, is what it tells me,” Starner said. “These are people who have actual projects in play and they don’t really have an impression of North Port.
“The good news here is, you have a blank slate and it’s up to you to fill that canvas.”
Starner went on to say that what North Port needs to do is “double down on primary industries” — referring to manufacturers such as King Plastic Corp. and the Adams Group — and ensure that sites are available for potential moves.
Citing the 2013 decision by Hertz Global Holdings to move its new world headquarters to Estero in Lee County, Starner said, “you’re not that far from them, you’re just undiscovered.”
That anonymity, he said, will soon fade once the Atlanta Braves start its Florida-based operations.
“As I told the audience in my presentation I feel like the Braves coming to North Port is a game changer for economic development,” Starner said. “Totally beyond the economic impact, it puts North Port on the map in terms of media attention.”
Dunn, who spent the morning on the stadium job site, focused on the economic impact the facility — which now carries a $140 million price tag, with the Braves picking up the increased cost — both on March 24, 2019, when it plays the first spring training game at the stadium, and on April 1, when all of the club’s Florida operations move to North Port.
The Braves estimate that their facility will generate a $1.7 billion impact on the area between 2019 and 2048. They expect to draw 105,000 during the first full spring training season in 2020, with 23 percent of those fans coming from out of state and spending $6.3 million annually in the community.
Dunn noted that come April 1, about 140 Braves employees will be working at the complex in the West Villages — many of them at a planned baseball academy and medical rehabilitation facility.
During spring training, it takes about 300 people to operate the complex.
“We have to make sure the fan has the best experience ever,” Dunn said. “We can’t control the balls and strikes — well, we should be able to control the balls and strikes — we can’t control whether they’re going to hit us or not, so whatever happens on the field is going to happen on the field.
“But I can control how clean the bathrooms are, I can control how cold the beer is, I can control how long it takes you to get in the parking lot, I can control how clean the curbs are. And all those things are attention to detail that all our operation staff will buy into.”
The facility will operate year round, with movie nights, farmers markets and other gatherings — including high school, college and amateur youth baseball tournaments.
Dunn also offered an update on the stadium construction. Currently 420 people are working on site. That should peak at 550 on-site workers when interior construction starts.
Rick Severance, president of Babcock Ranch, opened the five-hour conference by talking about the town, which is developed on 18,000 acres in south Charlotte County and is touted as the first solar-powered town in America.
“We are a region, beyond all shadow of a doubt,” said Severance, who went on to discuss how development is unfolding at Babcock Ranch, which is technically a special district along the lines of Reedy Creek Improvement District, where Walt Disney World has developed; and the West Villages Improvement District.