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Baseball Battle

By Jamaal O'Neal, posted Feb 3, 2012

An area north of historic downtown Wilmington poised for rapid growth before the Great Recession of 2008 may be swinging back to life.

Work on a new marina and hotel is slowly beginning to take shape, as developers with Wilmington-based Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel, LLC ramp up efforts to bring more entertainment to the area — including plans for a minor league baseball team and stadium.

“When I was developing this plan I thought, ‘What can I do to bring people downtown?’” said Chuck Schoninger, project developer and CEO of USA InvestCo. “It was bringing baseball to the region.”

During a recent press conference, Mayor Bill Saffo said city council members would consider a resolution giving the city, Mandalay Baseball Properties and the Atlanta National League Baseball Club, Inc. six months to map out specific arrangements to bring the minor league team to Wilmington.

But as the Port City mulls over a way to pay for the new stadium, it’s unclear whether the city’s baseball dreams will amount to a homerun.

Off the field

After the Wilmington City Council voted unanimously to approve the voluntary annexation of property for a large-scale apartment community development against the county’s wishes last month, a fairly civil relationship between the county and the city quickly became strained.

“It irritated me,” Davis said. “I had to sit through all those long meetings about the baseball team and building the stadium, and to have something like that done to me? I was done with it all.”

By “all,” Davis said he was referring to plans to construct a stadium for the future minor league baseball team.

The project includes land set aside for a stadium to be placed along the Cape Fear River as a key anchor for the development.

Schoninger said Mandalay officials expressed “serious” interest in bringing a minor league baseball team affiliated with the Atlanta Braves to Wilmington — a nearly $12 to $15 million investment for staff and players alone. He said he would sell the parcel of land needed for the stadium to the city and county for an undisclosed price, but none of the money currently being raised would be allocated for the stadium’s construction.

But when it comes to building the stadium, Davis, along with his fellow commissioners, are not playing ball.

“I’m not in favor of the baseball stadium and stopped going to the meetings,” Davis said. “I’ve said from the beginning that if it involves using ad-valorem property taxes or even sales tax money for the construction, I was not going to support the project, period.”

During the press conference, Saffo confirmed city officials are pursuing the project without the county’s help.

Saffo said the price tag for the 6,000-seat ballpark could be between $35 million and $40 million, and with the exception of Schoninger’s riverfront property, the mayor added the city is exploring other parcels of land to develop the baseball stadium. Preliminary plans call for the ballpark to be completed by 2014.

It’s unclear how the city plans to pay for the stadium’s development; however, Saffo hinted at increased property taxes for Wilmington residents and businesses — reneging on a 2011 campaign promise where he told supporters he would not support a property tax increase to finance the stadium’s construction.

“We’re going to take a look at all of our options,” Saffo said during an afternoon press conference. “I’m candy-coating it, there might be a property tax increase.”

Saffo 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.

He said once the city and partners involved in the development move closer to a deal, city staff will present its plans for the stadium to the public. 

Saffo contends the stadium’s development will be an economic boon for Wilmington, with the stadium playing host to conference games, concerts, tournaments and other social events all year round.

“We see this as an economic development opportunity for the city,” Saffo said. “The taxes generated, if this stadium is built, will benefit the county…it would be nice to partner with them, but it makes it a more difficult project to do without them.”

Uptown Wilmington
Schoninger said despite the political implications facing a key component of the project, he is moving forward with his development plans for the property.

“The project is progressing,” Schoninger said. But without the stadium, the development will not reach its full potential, he said.

Plans call for the development to house a 204-slip marina bordered by the now defunct Sawmill Point Marina project and the Wilmington Convention Center. The project also includes completing and incorporating the Riverwalk for the city along the Cape Fear River and will boast two to three outparcels for additional restaurant development and a hotel near the Wilmington Convention Center.

Crews are currently working on constructing the marina.

City records also indicate that Hotel Indigo is signing off on the project, which will includes two restaurants — one on the rooftop and another eatery on the first floor.

Officials with Riverfront Development will meet with the Wilmington Development Service’s Technical Review Committee this month to discuss details about the future development. 

“It’s an eight to nine-story hotel,” Schoninger said. “It’s going to be one of the sexiest hotels out there  . . . in my opinion, it’s going to be the best hotel in Wilmington.”

And as parts of the development pick up steam, so has Schoninger’s cash flow for the hotel and marina project.

“We’ve been extremely successful in raising capital for this project,” Schoninger said. “Our investors see the potential, and are ready to invest.”

Schoninger’s investment firm — USA InvestCo — is luring Chinese investors with 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.

Wilmington-based Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel, LLC is developing the project with the money being raised by Schoninger’s investment firm. 

Since establishing his first office in Guangzhou, China nearly a year ago, Schoninger’s firm has raised $10 million from more than 20 Chinese investors for the hotel and marina project. He said an additional 27 investors are slated to pump another $17 million into the project by the second quarter.

Schoninger added he plans to open additional offices in Shanghai and Beijing, and has seen additional requests for investments in the Port City at his newest office based in the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Overall, Schoninger wants his development to embody the spirit of a modern Wilmington on the move.

“Wilmington has a very beautiful, historic downtown,” Schoninger said. “But our strategy is looking to change downtown and create an uptown, which is how we are marketing this development.”

Schoninger said many of the architectural elements found in the PPD corporate headquarters and Wilmington Convention Center would accompany many of the buildings within his development.

He said added that area anchors like Cape Fear Community College’s future Humanities and Fine Arts Building, historic downtown and even booming Brunswick County across the river could make the Northern Riverfront development the region’s newest hotspot.

“We’re looking to create an atmosphere on the property that will cater to everyone’s entertainment needs,” Schoninger said. “We want this to be a major catalyst for downtown.”

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