Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Wilmington’s spending on baseball proposal at $168,000 so far

WILMINGTON – Roughly $168,000 in public money has supported the exploration of minor league baseball in Wilmington as city officials continue to negotiate final costs for the proposed stadium.

In the breakdown, most of it—$106,000—went to National Sports Services (NSS), the Topeka, Kan., group the city hired to determine the idea’s feasibility. The scenario pursued by the Wilmington City Council involves a public-private partnership to base an Atlanta Braves minor-league team at a slated 5,500-seat ballpark by the Cape Fear River downtown.

A $3,500 property appraisal, legal fees, financial consulting, and a public hearing advertisement rounded out the rest of the total spent so far, according to information requested from the city, whose budget for baseball prep-work this fiscal year is $355,000.

The city continues to work with the Braves and sports entertainment group Mandalay Baseball Properties on final costs for the ballpark. Despite a previous indication from the city that terms were nearly firm, the Wilmington City Council on Tuesday decided to continue the matter to its September 18 meeting.

City Manager Sterling Cheatham, in a letter to council members ahead of their last meeting, said city staffers “have made great strides in coming to consensus on many items, but there remain a few points on which staff needs guidance from Council.”

To that end, council members met with city staffers in closed session during the city’s September 5 meeting, but did not disclose details about the conversation. The council plans to hold another closed session Friday morning at City Hall to discuss “matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses,” according to a news release from the city.

While the negotiations have been “ongoing and fruitful,” according to Cheatham, Tuesday’s council meeting marked a nine-week runway toward November’s general election and a $37 million bond referendum expected to appear before Wilmington voters. It will enable the local electorate to approve or kill the immediate prospect of tax dollars supporting the stadium endeavor, which could require a 2.5-cent property tax increase.

The bond money would cover the costs of land and construction. According to the city, the ballpark would not exceed $31 million, while the eyed land, an 8.5-acre riverside property near the PPD office building and owned by developer Chuck Schoninger, was estimated to cost no more than $6 million.

Schoninger is the managing member of USAInvestCo, a Wilmington-based real-estate investment company with affiliates spread globally.

The potential public investment in the stadium has become a widely publicized dividing line for many Wilmington voters, with some celebrating the prospect of a new hometown baseball venue and others aghast at the proposed spending.

Josh Fulton, a former Wilmington City Council candidate who co-organized a petition that sought to block city dollars from the project, said he and allies are planning outreach to inform voters on why they should vote the referendum down.

“At the bare minimum, there will be yard signs and probably people at the polls,” Fulton said Wednesday. “Those are the two things that are pretty much a definite at this point.”

On the other side of the field, local stadium support group Port City Baseball, which boasts it has more than 2,000 members, is selling T-shirts that say “VOTE YES IN NOVEMBER” to push the bond issue through. While the message does the talking, the shirts’ proceeds benefit the Pink Ribbon Project, New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s breast-cancer awareness program.

Ben McCoy, also a former council candidate and other primary organizer of the ultimately unsuccessful petition to block city funds, told council members at an August 7 public hearing on the referendum that the city is playing the part of “sucker” in this project.

“I’m a fan of capitalism,” McCoy said at the time. “Mandalay (Baseball Properties) is made up of capitalists. They’re doing what they do. They roam around, they look for suckers, people that are going to give them money to run their business and make them profitable.… That’s how their business model works.

“I believe that the role of government doesn’t include propping up chosen corporations and private companies,” McCoy continued. If that is government’s role, he said, it could as easily apply to gas stations, fast-food restaurants and roller-skating rinks. “Where does it end?”

On the side of support for the stadium and public investment, Wilmington resident Perry Fisher told council members that “a lovely development on the riverfront—10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now—is going to be something that we and our children, and even our grandchildren, will be glad that we did now.”

Fisher was one of many supporters who suggested to the council that the stadium would boost community pride and put the Port City on track for a bright, well-developed future.

Information provided by the city based on the report from NSS indicates the stadium would have positive impacts on revenues and employment. Over a 20-year period, combining city and county numbers, it would create an estimated $313 million in new direct spending, the report says. From sources including lease payments and taxes on sales, property, and admissions, it would raise $24.7 million in new revenues.

As for employment, the report projects 6,412 new one-year full- and part-time jobs, more than half of which would be based in the city.

“I think baseball can be successful in Wilmington,” said Brian Parker of BKP Consulting, part of the NSS team, when Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo asked his perspective after the report’s findings aired. Parker, however, noted that his role did not involve making recommendations.

But Wilmington attorney Clay Collier told the council last month that all the momentum toward a Braves minor-league outfit has dusted over the fact that the city already has its own baseball team, one he said the city should be proud of.

The Wilmington Sharks, Collier told the council, are “your baseball team…. Folks, baseball in Wilmington is here. It has been here. Our position is that we could have been supported a little bit better.”

The Sharks, part of the collegiate Coastal Plain League since its 1997 inception, have an established local connection a Braves team would lack, Collier said. “We invest locally. We partner locally with local businesses and have been doing it for years. And we give back to the community.”

He said the team, which plays summer games at Legion Stadium’s Buck Hardee Field, has raised money in the fights against breast cancer and multiple sclerosis, for area animal rescue groups, and for youth enrichment, among other causes.

“I would submit that before you vote on this, before you put this to the people, think about what we’ve got,” Collier said. “Think about the Sharks, and don’t forget us.”

Click here  for information from the city about the stadium project and the NSS feasibility study.

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