Update Wednesday, 9 a.m.: The Wilmington City Council unanimously approved the Sharks’ request to put $15,000 toward improvements to Buck Hardee Field in lieu of making missed payments. City staff proposed that future payments are due closer to baseball season, rather than eight to nine months after it has ended. Staff confirmed there was an error in the reservation system, and Sharks president Matt Perry apologized for “not being more proactive” when the bill didn’t arrive.
WILMINGTON – The Wilmington Sharks baseball team still owes the city $15,000 in rent for playing at the Buck Hardee Field in 2019. Rather than paying that debt back, it’s proposing to invest that sum into upgrades at the Sharks’ home stadium.
Sharks president Matt Perry explained in an email that by the time it received its invoice for the usage fees, the season had concluded and the team was strapped for cash. Then Covid-19 reached the U.S., and the Sharks could not generate revenue for a year.
The proposed improvements include a home run porch seating area in the right field and the purchase of “numerous, heavy-duty” picnic tables to increase seating. Perry said the Sharks are also envisioning a new ticket booth.
“All things that will help address fan service and social distancing,” Perry said.
On Feb. 22 the Legion Stadium Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the Sharks’ request to finance enhancements in lieu of back payments. The city council will consider a resolution to accept the suggestion from the Sharks at its meeting Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. At least one council member is more interested in understanding why the money wasn’t paid to the city in the first place than negotiating some of the Sharks’ longed-for upgrades.
“Tomorrow night, I’d like to hear some discussion about how this happened, that we got through a whole season – apparently a successful season – and we didn’t get paid any of the rent, and what will we do to make sure that does not happen again,” council member Kevin O’Grady said during Monday’s agenda briefing.
In February 2020, the Sharks representatives presented to city and county leaders a desire to see about $2 million in renovations to the field. The proposed capital improvements are unfunded, but last week the Legion Stadium Commission recommended the group meet again with the other primary users to see if there are any agreed-on priorities for a potential project.
Councilmember Neil Anderson noted the county and city would need to take Title IX laws into consideration, equally representing male and female facilities. He also recalled that the Sharks were interested in naming rights of the field, but it currently adorns the name of a former renowned baseball coach of New Hanover High, another primary user of the ballpark.
The Sharks’ contract required the team to submit three payments to the city: one pre-season, one mid-season and one postseason. The $15,000 was the final installment for 2019. Director of community services Amy Beatty told the council the city invoiced the team – and followed up on several occasions – but was never paid.
“The remedy would be to file that with collections if council did not choose to approve and adopt this resolution,” Beatty said.
Perry said the Sharks received its bill later than usual, not until the 2019 season was long over, due to “a glitch” in the city’s billing process.
“Normally, they’re set up to invoice us during the season, which includes our primary months of positive cash flows as we have the game revenues coming in,” Perry said. “As we received the invoice after the season, we were in the midst of our negative cash-flow months and were discussing payment to be made in 2020.”
Then the pandemic forced the cancellation of all 2020 games. Perry said the Sharks have gone more than a year without any income.
“Staff is not recommending that you completely waive the fees, but that the city receives like-value in improvements to the stadium,” Beatty said.
The city would analyze the value of the upgrades and approve each improvement before it is installed. It also would reserve the right to examine the alterations throughout the process and reject any work it deems as substandard, according to the resolution.
As part of this agreement, the Sharks are seeking an extension of its license agreement with the city, which expired on Aug. 31. It’s asking to keep the same $625 daily usage fee it had in 2019 this upcoming summer, and proposing the rent rise in increments the following two years, from $625 to $655 in 2022 and to $685 in 2023.
The upcoming season
The Sharks are planning to host 34 home games this summer, an uptick from 26 in 2019, at Buck Hardee Field at Legion Stadium.
The most recent guidance from Gov. Roy Cooper on sporting events would allow the Sharks to seat almost 800 fans in the stands, although that amount could go up by opening day, May 27.
2019 was one of the Sharks’ most successful seasons and one of the most well-attended. The resolution drafted by city staff boasts the contributions of the Wilmington Sharks, members of the summer Coastal Plain League, to the city.
“Wilmington Sharks strive to offer a clean family entertainment experience for all Wilmington residents and visitors and will continue to build on the community outreach programs including reading programs, hosting underserved youth, conducting food bank collections, honoring local heroes, and more,” the resolution states.
Perry said he believes an investment at the ballpark is a good solution to the debt as the team bounces back from the pandemic. However, some council members don’t seem too eager to accept the Sharks’ pitch.
“They put us in a difficult position here because they’ve got our money,” O’Grady said. “That gives them a nice negotiating position against us. The only alternative we have is to not renew the lease . . . something we may have to discuss tomorrow night.”
“They better have somebody there from the Sharks,” Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes added.
“Yeah,” O’Grady said. “They need to tell us why we didn’t get paid.”
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