Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Whatever happened to . . . Wilmington’s baseball stadium?

In 2012, City Council made a major push to bring a professional baseball team to downtown Wilmington. The price tag - $37 million - was too steep for voters, who shot down a bond referendum. It wasn't the city's first pro team, but was it the last?

In 2012, City Council made a major push to bring a professional baseball team to downtown Wilmington. The price tag - $37 million - was too steep for voters, who shot down a bond referendum. It wasn't the city's first pro team, but was it the last? (Port City Daily photo | File)
In 2012, City Council made a major push to bring a professional baseball team to downtown Wilmington. The price tag – $37 million – was too steep for voters, who shot down a bond referendum. It wasn’t the city’s first pro team, but was it the last? (Port City Daily photo | File)

WILMINGTON — A professional baseball stadium, a $1 billion international port, a major expansion of the county jail — what happened to them?

This week we tackle some of the biggest projects that didn’t quite get realized. These are the plans and ideas locals and newcomers to the Wilmington area ask the most about.

A brief history of minor league baseball in Wilmington

Wilmington has had several rather brief attempts at hosting a minor-league team.

The Port City Roosters, a minor league affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, played two dismal seasons in Wilmington.

After suffering back-to-back last-place finishes in 1995 and 1996, with attendance falling nearly by half the second year, the Roosters moved to Mobile, Alabama, citing – among other things – an inadequate stadium.

UNCW’s Bill Brooks Field had about 3,000 seats, about half of what other minor-league teams were asking host cities for at the time.

National Sports Services, a consulting group hired by Wilmington in 2012 to explore plans for a minor league stadium, noted both the undersized facility at UNCW and the lack of alcoholic beverages as being issues contributing to the Roosters’ departure.

Five years after the Roosters left, the Wilmington Waves, a minor league team for the Los Angeles Dodgers, gave it a try.

The Waves fared better than the Roosters, finishing eighth in the South Atlantic League in 2001, but also found Brooks field too small (and too dry). The Waves wanted to build a new ballpark but were unable to negotiate an acceptable deal with the city.

Bill Brooks Field, where UNCW baseball plays, was reportedly too small for professional teams — and the field didn’t serve alcoholic beverages. (Port City Daily photo | File)

It would be another ten years, but minor league baseball came back to Wilmington.

Atlanta Braves Minor League team

In 2012, the city began negotiating with Mandalay Baseball Properties, part of the Mandalay Entertainment company, and the Atlanta Braves.

Over the better part of the year, Councilman Kevin O’Grady and Deputy City Manager Tony Caudle worked to reach a deal to bring a Braves minor league team to Wilmington in a new $37 million 6,200-seat stadium.

In September of 2012, Council signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mandalay and the Braves.

The 20-year deal would guarantee just two seasons with a minor league team, and was contingent on the Braves and Mandalay acquiring the Virginia-based Lynchburg Hillcats. These uncertainties led then-Councilwoman Laura Padgett to express concern.

Padgett, who was the only “no” vote on the MOU, pointed to the lack of financial guarantees, national trends in sports events attendances, and the project’s cost.

It was the latter the ultimately caused the most controversy over stadium plan: the city’s deal with the Braves put Wilmington on the hook for the project’s entire $37 million price tag, including approximately $6 million to buy land on the north waterfront area from developer Chuck Schoninger.

The city didn’t have much time to sell it’s deal, either — the MOU called for a voter referendum less than two months later in November.

Fans and opponents take to the streets

Former Wilmington mayor Harper Peterson speaks out against the city’s proposal to build a baseball stadium with public money. (Port City Daily photo | Ben Brown)

Opposition to the stadium quickly coalesced into the Vote No Stadium Tax (VNST) group, which vocally opposed the proposed 2.5 cent per $100 tax increase that would pay for the stadium. At a public rally, VNST members — including former mayor Harper Peterson —  objected to that MOU would commit taxpayer money despite not being a “complete and final agreement.”

Proponents held their own rally in favor, calling themselves the Wilmington Family Entertainment and Baseball Committee.

Members included Braves General Manager Frank Wren, committee organizer Terry Spencer, Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors Chairwoman Emily Longley, Wilmington Star-News Publisher Bob Gruber, and Mayor Bill Saffo.

Saffo and other committee members argued that the potential financial rewards of building the stadium outweighed the risks, citing the National Sports Services study which stated the minor-league stadium could bring $168 million in direct investment to the area.

Just over a month later, Wilmington voted.

Referendum and a new plan

The November referendum came back two-to-one against the stadium.

With about 50,000 votes, it was 15,000 in favor and 35,000 against. Saffo expressed disappointment, but acknowledged that “tough economic times” made the project an “uphill sell.”

Saffo said the city would continue to “to look for economic development opportunities that will benefit our city in the future.”

The 2016 Parks Bond dropped the idea of a baseball stadium in favor of something residents responded to much more warmly -- a music venue. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy City of Wilmington)
The 2016 Parks Bond dropped the idea of a baseball stadium in favor of something residents responded to much more warmly — a music venue. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy City of Wilmington)

Four years later, the city had a new plan — a $20 million park project on the location previously considered for the baseball stadium.

Part of a $38 million bond to improve the city’s parks and recreation facilities, the project included something Wilmington residents apparently found more appealing than a baseball stadium — a concert venue.

In November of 2016, the parks bond passed with over 60 percent of the vote. The city would ultimately contract with Live Nation to manage the venue which, like the baseball stadium, would seat over 6,000 people.

Construction is set to begin this year.

A future for baseball? Not likely

Mandalay Baseball Properties began selling off its teams just a year after the deal with Wilmington stalled out; by 2014 the last of its teams had been sold.

The Lynchburg Hillcats served as a farm team for the Braves through 2014, and are currently affiliated with the Cleaveland Indians. The Hillcats won the 2017 Carolina League Championships, but the odds of seeing them play in Wilmington are pretty slim, according to several city council members.

Councilman Paul Lawler said Wilmington was still focusing on projects funded in the 2016 parks bond.

“Right now the City is focused on creating the soccer park voters approved in the recent parks bond. I think that worked well with residents as it was established from the beginning that the final decision would be on the ballot. Taxpayers knew they would have the final say on it,” Lawler said.

Councilman Neil Anderson said he wasn’t aware of any teams currently looking at Wilmington, but struck an optimistic note.

“As far as I know, there has been no sustained interest form any pro sports team/club in the past few years…really since 2012,” Anderson said, adding, “Who knows what the future holds as we grow…plenty of other things going on though…very exciting times in our city.”

So, has city council given the idea any further considered? Councilman Kevin O’Grady was to the point:

“No,” O’Grady said. “No further consideration.”


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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