Saturday, April 13, 2024

‘The economy is in freefall’: Residents form petition against Leland baseball stadium

Leland economic and community development director Barnes Sutton gave a presentation on a feasibility study for a new baseball stadium to a packed house Thursday. (Port City Daily/Peter Castagno)

LELAND — A study this week suggested a proposed $105-million baseball stadium would be an economic boon to Brunswick County’s largest city — but residents don’t buy it. 

READ MORE: Leland puts down $30K for feasibility study on baseball stadium development

Many have voiced opposition through a new petition started Oct. 19 and at a contentious Leland Town Council meeting Thursday. Officials met to hear the results of a feasibility study and economic analysis about bringing the 6,000-capacity, 1,400-acre complex to the Jackeys Creek area. 

The stadium — pitched earlier in the year by the town and REV Entertainment Group — would take up 51 acres and be surrounded by commercial and residential development. The feasibility study shows it would cost $59 million to build the stadium, to include a hospitality zone, a terraced corporate event space, fun zone, and climate-controlled indoor suites. Surrounding infrastructure construction — roads, utilities, parking lots, mixed-use space — is proposed to be $46 million.

The petition to stop the stadium from moving forward was filed on Change.org by Rhonda Florian, who also spoke out at Leland’s Thursday meeting. The petition has garnered more than 200 signatures. 

“The economy is in a freefall,” Florian wrote on the petition. “Interest rates are skyrocketing. The dollar is being devalued across the globe. The world is on the brink of global war, and everything is destabilizing. It’s a very bad time to take on $110 million of debt.”

Florian told council members at the meeting she was concerned the stadium would bring higher taxes, lead to neglected infrastructure, and bring forth unwanted noise pollution. The sentiments were echoed by a dozen or so residents who also spoke out Thursday.

Economic and community development director Barnes Sutton presented to council the study’s findings. Conducted by consulting and public accounting firm Baker Tilly — which the town paid $30,000 to earlier in the year — the study suggested the group move forward due to its projection the stadium will generate large additions of revenue. It’s proposed to be built on land owned by Jackeys Creek Investors LLC, which will develop residences surrounding the area.

RCLCO, a real estate consulting company, was utilized for the study to determine market-based projections regarding site development. In the coming two decades, the company assessed opportunities for building out more than 9,950 rental and homeowner units, more than 400,000 square feet of proposed retail, restaurants and grocery, and 650,000 square feet of office space. It would also include a 150-unit full-service hotel and two limited-service hotels with 120 rooms each and a 245,0000-square-foot medical campus.

Baker Tilly estimated total property tax revenue over an approximate 30-year period to be more than $182 million, with $73 million going to the town and the rest to the county. Sales taxes for adjacent development is slated to be over $175 million. Additionally, the study posits the stadium would produce operating revenues of $135 million over 10 years.

It listed “public and private sources of revenue from stadium operating fees, potential statutorily allowable revenue tools, and other public fees” as possible sources generated by the baseball stadium.

Baker Tilly did not conduct a debt analysis. It surmised at completion the value of the baseball stadium and Jackeys Creek Development is estimated to be $2.39 billion.

The report suggested the generation of $5.1 billion in economic and labor income, with the creation of 29,695 temporary direct, indirect, and induced jobs, and increased demand for surrounding development, such as hotels and restaurants. Resident Susan Burton cast doubt on the quality of jobs the stadium would bring.

“Construction jobs are probably going to go to out-of-state people since they’re temporary jobs,” Burton said during the public hearing. “The post-construction jobs will probably be low-paying, not enough to support a family. Some of them are seasonal and many won’t start right away.”

The cost to build the complex was roughly $12 million less than an earlier rough estimate put forth by Jones, Petrie, Rafinski Architects. Sutton told Port City Daily the proposal decreased because some of the site prep costs were privatized and additional developments around the park were deemed unnecessary. 

CATCH UP: As Leland awaits feasibility study, early estimates exceed $115 million for baseball stadium

Funding sources to complete construction of the $105-million proposal remain unclear.

When it was first announced that Rev Entertainment Group — an event and sports management group created by the Texas Rangers in 2021 — was looking to bring a minor league baseball team to the area via a mixed-use complex, the idea of a bond was floated. However, that was quashed in March upon the first presentation officials gave to the public about the complex.

MORE: Countywide bond off the table for Leland’s potential baseball stadium

Then in April Brunswick County backed out of carrying the finance, due to leadership’s concerns the investment “may not be prudent.” Chairman Randy Thompson said while the county decided against taking on debt, staff would work with all parties involved to find other ways to move it forward.

Leland council member Veronica Carter admitted at the meeting the project costs more than the county originally anticipated. 

“When the county was still our partner in this, we wanted to get kind of a ballpark figure of what it might be,” Carter said. “And everyone should know it was nowhere near $105 million. So we probably would have stopped right there. It was close to about a tenth of that.”

Despite the hefty cost, she did not want to dismiss the proposal because it could “create a downtown” for Leland.

“We have to kind of negotiate with whoever might be willing to give us a downtown or we’re never going to have a downtown,” Carter said.

Next steps for the project include exploring funding approaches.

“Ideas could include public-private partnerships, interlocal government agreements, property tax rate adjustments, alternative financing structures, or other similar innovative approaches,” the study indicated. 

Almost every resident who spoke at the hearing feared increased taxes.

“I don’t think the residents of Leland should have to be paying our hard-earned money so that REV Entertainment can get rich,” Florian said. “The tax dollar that goes to private industry is a tax dollar that is taken away from things our community really truly needs.”

Sutton disputed the argument.

“The study doesn’t support any of that and there are no recommendations to raise taxes at any point — and I understand that concern,” he said.

Resident Marilyn O’Brien questioned REV’s experience in the stadium-management game. A third party would operate the sports complex and minor league team. According to Baker Tilly’s study, it projects “shared revenue of $600,000 annually for stadium leases.”

“I looked at REV’s website and I realized that REV is only three years old,” she said. “And they only feature two stadiums on that entire website.”

REV oversees the Globe Life Field — the ballpark of the Texas Rangers — and Choctaw Stadium, a multi-purpose field. Both are in Arlington, Texas. Leland’s stadium would be 10 times smaller than the Rangers’ Globe Life Field arena. 

Part of Florian’s petition includes three articles arguing sports stadiums are not a lucrative public investment. One of the articles in the petition noted three New Jersey minor-league stadiums — built in Atlantic City, Newark, and Camden — are now mostly closed despite projections of economic growth and civic revitalization. 

The other two articles argue sports stadiums rarely produce quality employment because jobs are often low-wage and temporary, and are inadequate public investments because they often do not generate enough revenue to justify tax-funded investment.

A 2022 review of over 130 studies on the impact of sports teams and stadiums by the Journal of Economic Surveys found sports stadiums generally do not provide a strong economic benefit for local communities. However, a 2023 Regional Science and Urban Economics study found baseball stadiums increase tourism and economic spending, due to purchases at food, accommodations, and retail businesses.

After the public hearing, Sutton told Port City Daily he had seen resistance to the proposed stadium online and on social media but not to the degree he witnessed at the council meeting.

“That was probably the first time we’ve seen a turnout like that,” Sutton said about the standing-room-only capacity.

He challenged the view that REV is insufficiently experienced. Though still in its infancy, REV personnel in the last decade worked behind the scenes with the Texas Rangers. Its president, Sean Decker, was the former executive vice president of Rangers Sports and Entertainment, while CEO Neil Leibman was the Rangers’ COO and president of business operations.

“The R stands for Rangers in REV entertainment,” he said. “They were affiliated with the Rangers and they’ve been doing all of their entertainment, music venues, sporting venues, retail districts around their facilities.”

Decker announced in March at another packed public forum that REV will match “dollar-for-dollar” development in the vicinity to offset costs for building the stadium.

Resident Leonard Gregorio, a retired psychology professor, believes the stadium would lower living standards for Leland’s senior citizens; 27.5% of Leland residents are over 65 and a 2021 SmartAsset study named Leland among the top locations for retirees in North Carolina.

“I’m too old to take that risk,” Gregorio said. “I do not want to have the noise, the pollution, the other factors reducing my quality of life.”

Sutton disputed residents’ critiques, asserting noise and light pollution are considered at the technical review level and would not be as severe as many feared.

“Noise pollution is something that we take pretty seriously,” he said. “We have cut off times for loud music, business events, construction — timelines for when we have to stop construction.”

One person at the meeting spoke in favor of bringing the stadium to Leland. Stephen Mintz said it will create recreation, dining and shopping amenities for residents to utilize.

“This an opportunity that is bar none the best thing that Leland could ever have happened to them,” Mintz said. “For the majority of my life, Leland has just been kind of a pit stop, something you drive through to get to the next place … in my opinion the baseball stadium provides our community the opportunity to be a destination.”

Councilmember Bill McHugh stressed the importance of considering other beneficial aspects beyond the stadium housing minor league baseball.

“We’re not just talking about the stadium in isolation, we’re talking about bringing real amenities and quality-of-life changes,” McHugh said.

Baker Tilly’s study did not look at the stadium’s impact on quality of life for locals, nor its impact on town services. The stadium’s implementation would require electric, gas, sewer, water, an off-site force main, and a lift station. The site includes 12 acres of wetlands so mitigation would be required. The study suggested further evaluation on both fronts. 

Jackeys Creek would have to be annexed into Leland before any movement on the stadium could take place. Carter acknowledged at the meeting the North Carolina General Assembly’s recent passage of Senate Bill 911. Sponsored by Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick), it prevents Leland from annexing properties more than 1.5 miles from the town’s border. Jackeys Creek backs up to Brunswick Forest neighborhood and the Walmart Supercenter complex in Leland. Carter stated the site would remain eligible for annexation.

Council did not take any formal vote on moving forward. Next steps include identifying and quantifying available financing tools, evaluating impact on town services, further defining quality-of-life benefits of the project, and engaging further in a public-private partnership.

Sutton deemed resident feedback as useful and anticipated more opportunities for input in future.


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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