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08/20/07 3:00 PM ET

Rays break ground on spring facility

Charlotte Sports Park on track to open in spring of 2009

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Charlotte County and the Devil Rays enjoyed a joint feel-good moment late Monday morning during a groundbreaking ceremony for the future home of Spring Training for the Rays.

Officials from the Rays, Charlotte County, HOK Sport and Hunt Construction were all a part of the ceremony.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg was the first speaker, and he told an enthusiastic crowd of approximately 200 that the Rays are all about making friends, being good neighbors and being good partners.

"What you're looking at today will be completely different in a year and a half," said Sternberg in his remarks.

Those wanting to take more than Sternberg's word could view seven renditions of what Charlotte Sports Park will look like when it is finished in time to host the Rays for Spring Training beginning in 2009.

Renovations will begin this week. The plans call for a thorough overhaul of the complex, including the replacement of all seats, two new berm areas along the left- and right-field lines, improved access for disabled patrons, new landscaped entry plazas, a new "Kids Zone" along the right-field line, renovated suites and press areas, a new 40,000 square-foot clubhouse and administrative office building, rehabilitated practice fields and training facilities, and a new 20,000 square-foot outfield boardwalk that will provide 360-degree circulation around the ballpark.

Rays officials in attendance included Sternberg; Matt Silverman, team president; Andrew Friedman, executive vice president of baseball operations; Michael Kalt, senior vice president of development and business affairs; Joe Maddon, Rays manager; and James Shields, the Rays right-hander.

"We are grateful to officials from Charlotte County for their partnership in shepherding this project over the past 12 months," said Kalt, who has been spearheading the Rays' effort. "We're confident that the facility will be a source of great pride for our players, our fans, and the entire Charlotte County community for many years to come."

Hunt Construction Group, Inc., teamed with Mathews Taylor Construction, LLC, and HOK Sports, have been retained as the design-builder. Hunt and HOK have worked together on other Florida sports projects including Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Dolphin Stadium in Miami and Jacksonville Municipal Stadium in Jacksonville.

"It's a big day for us," Silverman said. "So much work has gone in to getting us to this point. We have a great partnership with Charlotte County. And we have worked very well together to get to this point. And we're looking forward to the next big day, which will be the opening of this park in '09."

Silverman said the Rays hope to take the best from many of Florida's Spring Training parks.

"I hope it has the intimacy of our current park, Al Lang, but has some of the amenities and the 360-degree circulation of some of the newer parks," Silverman said. "Like Bright House Networks field in Clearwater [spring home of the Phillies]."

Silverman echoed Kalt in saying the Rays have begun a great partnership with the residents of Charlotte County.

"They're fans of the Rays throughout the year and it gives us a home in this part of the state of Florida to really expand our region," Silverman said. "The 'baseball fever' is alive in Charlotte County and we expect to have great success here with Charlotte County."

Sternberg said it is important for the Rays to have a facility the players like.

"Players generally are treated pretty well, and they should be, they work hard, they have to stay in shape and everything else," Sternberg said. "And for the most part, Spring Training facilities are pretty good, especially compared to what they were 20 years ago. A lot of changes have been made in the design element. We like to think we'll be the latest one and the latest is usually the greatest."

Shields said there were pros and cons of moving from St. Petersburg for Spring Training.

"But it's what they've decided to do," Shields said. "It's a nice park."

Shields then seemed to think about the summer-long chants echoing inside Tropicana Field when Rays fans are outnumbered by opposing fans.

"We're trying to widen our fan base," Shields said. "Maybe we'll get some more fans coming up from Port Charlotte to see us play. When Boston and the Yankees come to your hometown and we have more Boston and Yankee fans, it's pretty disappointing. So if we can widen our fans base there will be more fans rooting for the Rays. That's a good thing."

The Charlotte County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously (4-0) last year to approve an agreement to add a one-fifth of a cent to the county's tourism tax which will be used along with funding from the Rays and the State of Florida to cover the cost of the $27.2 million project. Last January, Charlotte County was also awarded $15 million in grant funding for the project from the Florida Sports Foundation and the State's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.