The pinnacle of growth some business and civic leaders were hoping would come to fruition along the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington appears stalled after a failed voter referendum.
According to Tuesday’s unofficial returns, about 70 percent of the more than 50,000 Wilmington residents who weighed in on a bond referendum about a proposed baseball stadium voted against authorizing the city to spend $37 million on the project.
Earlier this year, Mandalay Baseball and Atlanta Braves officials announced plans to bring an Atlanta Braves minor league baseball franchise to the Port City – as long as the city footed the bill to construct the stadium.
Richard W. Neumann, president of Mandalay Baseball Properties, said Wednesday given the referendum’s wide margin of defeat, it might be a long time before any minor league baseball organization considers coming to Wilmington.
“Given the outcome of the election, it's clear to us minor league baseball in Wilmington is off the table and will be for quite some time,” Neumann said. “In the next few years, I can’t imagine anyone taking a hard look at Wilmington for minor league baseball.”
Funded with a 2.5-cent property hike, the multipurpose stadium pitched to voters boasted more than 6,000 seats, executive club suites, river views and a 1.5-acre city park. City officials had focused on the roughly 8.06-acre site of the former Sawmill Marina development for the stadium’s proposed site.
After interest from multiple developers, including a partnership between Augusta, Ga.-based businessman Clay Boardman and Wilmington-based developer Raiford Trask III who proposed footing the bill of the stadium’s construction as along as the city was willing to assume potential overages, city officials ultimately decided to take on the risk as project developer and construct the stadium.
Proponents of the stadium, including the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and with the help of Raleigh-based public relations powerhouse Capstrat, touted the potential economic development benefits the stadium could bring to the city and region – citing success stories in Durham and Dayton, Ohio.
“Obviously, we’re very disappointed in the referendum results, but the effort and dedication of volunteers was incredible,” Terry Spencer, spokesman for Wilmington Family Entertainment and Baseball Coalition, said Wednesday. “We have no regrets. We knew that this was going to be an uphill struggle, but we made some headway and moved the ball on this issue, and that’s very important.”
Scott Harry, president of the Vote No Stadium Tax Referendum Committee, said it was time for Wilmington officials to focus on fundamental services the city provides residents.
“I’m proud of the people for making their voice heard. Clearly, the [city] council and [county] commissioners have heard it loud and clear,” Harry said. “It’s time to get back to taking care of core services the government is responsible for and putting an end to this nonsense.”
An upscale residential project slated for the area also died alongside the referendum’s defeat.
Officials with Charlotte-based South Street Partners, a private real estate investment company, have previously said they would not pursue a multi-story, luxury mixed-use development near the intersection of Cowan and Front streets if the referendum did not pass.
Officials with the firm last week announced plans to build a $20 million-$26 million development on 5.42 acres of the Upper Dean tract for the residential development that could include ground-level retail, parking above the ground-level retail and 200-250 residential units.
Patrick Melton, managing partner of South Street Partners, did not return phone calls for comments by press time Wednesday afternoon.
In the run up to Election Day, Mandalay Baseball and Atlanta Braves officials donated $12,500 each to the Wilmington Family Entertainment and Baseball Coalition.
Neumann said the pro-stadium committee was not to blame for the referendum’s defeat but rather the city residents’ ideological shift about the role of government.
“I thought the grassroots movement with the [pro-stadium] campaign was executed well,” he said. “The obstacle was that a vast majority of people are ideologically opposed to public/private partnerships. This was a great opportunity for the city and one that the city will come to regret not taking advantage of.”
He said Mandalay Baseball and the Atlanta Braves were no longer pursuing the project.
“We really don’t have any plan-B locally or elsewhere,” Neumann said. “This was the opportunity we wanted to pursue and not being successful means it’s really over. Wilmington spoke and they don’t want to have this.”
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The 2023 WilmingtonBiz: Book on Business is an annual publication showcasing the Wilmington region as a center of business.