Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Baseball referendum fails by wide margin

The Wilmington Sharks will for now remain the Port City’s baseball team of focus.

The general election in Wilmington showed overwhelming opposition to a proposal to publicly finance the construction of a new, downtown baseball stadium intended to host an Atlanta Braves minor-league outfit, a plan supporters claimed would have given the city a crucial magnet for economic development and job creation.

Tuesday night’s unofficial results from a referendum before Wilmington voters recorded 29.96 percent for and 70.04 percent against the plan to authorize $37 million in financing for the project and stage residents for a 2.5-cent property tax increase. The levy would have drawn $43.75 a year on a $175,000 home in Wilmington’s limits; a $500,000 property would have generated $125.

A total of 49,226 voters participated in the referendum, by Tuesday’s count.

The electorate’s disapproval, nodding to the controversy over the involvement of tax dollars as lean times continue, means the plan as structured is off the table.

“I think it shows the City Council that people want the city to focus on things like infrastructure–things we need–and not on investments the city should have no business with,” said Scott Harry, head of the opposition Vote No Stadium Tax group. Harry emphasized his love for baseball but called “corporate welfare”–the city funding the stadium for the Braves–bad business for the municipality.

On the other end, Terry Spencer of the Vote Yes! campaign said the stadium would have been a “wonderful asset” for Wilmington and that education on the matter will continue. But, “win or lose,” he said, the campaign reached thousands of voters who threw support behind the concept.

“We think that we have convinced a lot of people in the area on the benefits of this facility,” Spencer said Tuesday night.

The respective groups led by Harry and Spencer drove each end of the conversation as the calendar ticked toward the Election Day referendum. They stuck roadsides and medians citywide with campaign signs, placed advertisements online and appeared on radio and television with their talking points.

On Nov. 2, the Civitas Institute released the results of a poll that determined 59 percent of voters intended to vote against the financing and that 72 percent believed tax money would be the wrong way to pay for a ballpark. The poll, conducted by phone, drew from 300 Wilmington voters.

Supporters of the stadium’s construction said the Braves would bring a new level of entertainment and pride to the Port City and could not be compared to the failed minor-league efforts of the past.

The Roosters, part of the Southern League as a Class-AA affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, lasted two seasons in the mid 1990s in Wilmington after low attendance and consecutive last-place finishes. A report from consultant National Sports Services (NSS), which the city hired to explore the Braves’ potential here, said the Roosters had an “inadequate stadium” in UNCW’s Brooks Field, which notably did not serve alcoholic beverages.

The Wilmington Waves, part of the South Atlantic League and a Class-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, played just one season in Wilmington, in 2001. The NSS report said the Waves, too, played at Brooks Field and wanted to build a new ballpark in Wilmington “but could not reach a deal with the city.” The team finished eighth in its league.

UNCW and the Wilmington Sharks continue to play games in Wilmington. The latter established itself in 1997 with the collegiate Coastal Plain League and holds summer games at Legion Stadium’s Buck Hardee Field.

Wilmington attorney Clay Collier, who represents the Sharks, said Tuesday night the city’s Braves proposal prompted talks of the Sharks relocating. Had the referendum passed, “It would have put the Sharks out of business,” Collier said.

But the team is alive and well, he stressed, adding he sees it as a great, local asset that supports local businesses and gives the community a lot of pride.

Wilmington City Council at its regular meeting Wednesday night had intended to discuss an agreement toward the purchase of a $5.2 million piece of riverside land eyed for the proposed Braves stadium.

Watching the results scroll at the New Hanover County Government Center Tuesday night, City Councilman Kevin O’Grady said the referendum’s defeat would effectively cancel that discussion.

Mayor Bill Saffo said he knew the stadium cause would “be an uphill sell given the current economic conditions. This was definitely the best deal that’s ever been proposed–a 20 year commitment, the Atlanta Braves–but at the end of the day, the voters obviously spoke.”

When asked about the potential for moving forward without public money, Saffo said: “At this point, it doesn’t look like it. Without public financing, I can’t see how it could work out unless we have some other parties come to the table.”

Saffo later in the evening provided a full statement on the matter:

“Baseball has been discussed in our community for a number of years and this was the first viable proposal we had seen, involving not only Major League Baseball, but also a nationally known management entertainment company. Clearly this opportunity came knocking at our door at a tough time, when citizens are worried about government spending, even when the benefits are large. That’s why it was important for citizens to have their say and that’s why we put this referendum on the ballot.

“It is clear from the outcome of this election that our citizens do not want to pursue baseball and we have heard them. We will continue to focus on providing core services to our citizens, just as we always have. We will also continue to look for economic development opportunities that will benefit our city in the future.

“This has been a healthy debate for our community with strong feelings on both sides. We ask everyone–supporters and opponents–to stay involved in city government and continue to promote positive growth and change for our community. Most of all, we thank everyone who took part in this debate for stepping up to do what they think is right for our city.”

Contact Ben Brown at ben.b@hometownwilmington.com or (910) 772-6335. On Twitter: @benbrownmedia

Port City Daily reporter Joe Catenacci contributed to this story.

Related Articles