'Wilmington Braves' and stadium inch forward
February 8, 2012By Jamaal E. O'Neal
The Wilmington City Council Tuesday night unanimously voted to initiate a memorandum of understanding with Mandalay Baseball Properties and the Atlanta National League Baseball Club.
The memorandum took affect Tuesday and ends July 31 with an option to be extended between the city and the two baseball organizations.
Mayor Bill Saffo said the city is looking at potential locations, costs and public input associated in bringing a new baseball team and stadium to the Port City by April 2014.
During a press conference first announcing the city’s intent to explore bringing minor league baseball to Wilmington last week, Saffo said depending on public input, the city may build a $35 million to $40 million, 6,000-seat stadium to be used year-round as a multi-purpose facility if Mandalay Baseball brings in a minor league team and oversees the stadium’s operations.
He held fast on his promise to residents that packed city hall for the council’s decision.
“I think this is a great opportunity for our community and a tremendous economic opportunity,” Saffo said. “We’re going to pursue this process. . . so stay tuned. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
On Tuesday night, there were several residents wearing Atlanta Braves caps and jerseys and a handful of protesters carrying handwritten signs that read “No.”
Wilmington Downtown Inc. executive director John Hinnant said the city would be remiss not to consider bringing baseball to downtown Wilmington. He said having a stadium downtown could provide the economic boost needed to make Wilmington an even bigger destination location, citing the success Durham — a city with 228,330 residents — has experienced since building a stadium downtown.
“Public investment has created a wave of confidence in downtown Durham,” Hinnant said. “Some say this is corporate welfare and I disagree . . . I look forward to hearing ‘play ball’ in our future.”
An economic impact study completed by Washington, D.C.-based Brailsford & Dunlavey found a baseball team and stadium in the Port City could potentially bring in an initial $62 million its first year and nearly $10 million annually.
Mandalay officials added the team and concessions would hire 25 to 35 full-time employees and about 400 seasonal jobs to the area.
And the heavy hitters kept swinging.
Before attending the city council meeting, Mandalay Baseball and Atlanta Braves officials brought former general manager Bobby Cox, current general manager Frank Wren and a smattering of other officials into town for a short media briefing at the Downtown Hilton Riverside.
There, officials called Wilmington a staple of “Braves Country,” and laid out their commitment to the city; however, they would not disclose financial details on the construction of the new ballpark or the team.
Richard W. Neumann, Mandalay Baseball Properties president of baseball development, said both agencies are offering a 20-year lease guarantee if Wilmington foots the bill for the construction of a stadium.
He added that Mandalay Baseball and the Braves would co-own the minor league team, which officials said would relocate from Lynchburg, Va. to the Port City — if a site is selected and agreement can be reached.
Wren said the Braves organization is committed to the city, and wants to see its franchise —the Wilmington Braves — become an integral part of Wilmington’s growth and the Braves’ success.
“Having the team logistically in the Southeast is good for our teams and our fans,” Wren said.
Bobby Ray agreed, adding the city’s location and beauty make Wilmington a home run for the organization.
“We would love to have Wilmington part of our organization,” Ray said. “We’re trying to keep the ball rolling, and this is one step in many to bring our franchise to the city.”
But despite the pep rally atmosphere created by baseball proponents in the crowd, the city is still exploring ways to fund the stadium’s construction.
Saffo earlier hinted at increased property taxes for Wilmington. He said other options would be using sales tax money or making the Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel development property a tax increment financing district, where sales tax money generated from the baseball stadium, restaurants, shops and hotel within the development would be used to pay for the ballpark’s construction.
City council member Earl Sheridan asked Neumann how Dayton, Oh., a rust-belt city with a declining population for the past five decades, could afford to build Fifth Third Bank Field for its Dragon’s Baseball team.
Neumann said the city floated general obligation bonds, aggressively sought after state grants and had Mandalay Baseball make a financial contribution in lieu of rent payments for the stadium’s construction.
He called Mandalay’s investment in Dayton one of the largest success stories in the franchise’s history, citing its record sold out attendance of 814 games and multiple ongoing revitalization projects in the city’s downtown area.
Council member Laura Padgett said she would support the measure, but stressed concerns about using taxpayer money to pay for the stadium’s construction.
“I’m going to support this to move this forward because I think we’d be foolish to have an opportunity like this and not look into it,” Padgett said. “But I think it’s wrong for city taxpayers to pay an increased tax rate on their own to pay for this facility.”
In other business, council members unanimously approved another memorandum of understanding with Virginia Beach, Va.-based Harmony Hospitality, Inc. to build either a Sheraton or Embassy Suites hotel adjacent to the Wilmington Convention Center.
If financing and a franchise agreement are set in place in seven months, the city and Harmony will have two months to close on the land, which costs $579,000. Harmony would begin construction in fall 2012.
The proposed full-service hotel would have 194 rooms, 6,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space, a restaurant and a swimming pool.
Brooks Johnson, director of development for Harmony Hospitality, told council members the group plans to use a federal program called Employment Based Program Number 5, or EB5, where for a minimum of $500,000 invested, individual investors are granted green cards to move their families to the United States, to fund its Wilmington project.
Chuck Schoninger, developer and CEO of USA InvestCo., is also using EB5 funds to finance development within the 35-acre Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel development, which includes a Hotel Indigo, a 204-slip marina and several restaurants.