Rangers Minor League At Play: Will Leland Win Where Wilmington Struck Out?

By Johanna F. Still, posted Feb 2, 2023
The Texas Rangers are considering bringing a minor league baseball team and entertainment complex to Leland. (File photo)
Officials with the Texas Rangers are considering launching a minor league baseball team in Leland and building a new entertainment venue to accommodate the endeavor. Though Wilmington now has a large-scale entertainment venue of its own, the talks may spur deja vu of the decade-old swing and miss to bring baseball downtown.

A representative of REV Entertainment and the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball team first reached out to town officials about the prospect last summer. 

In December, a group of business interests traveled to Leland – at least the second inbound trip to the area associated with the proposal – and gave a select group of stakeholders an overview of the plans in a series of information sessions. 

First reported by WWAY, the plans entail erecting a new stadium on land next to Brunswick Forest as part of the Jackeys Creek development on a more than 1,400-acre site. It could accommodate 4,000 spectators and would include about 1,750 parking spaces, plans show. 

Jeff Earp, the developer of Brunswick Forest, has been involved with high-level discussions between town and baseball officials, according to town emails. The land shown in the site plan is not in town limits and is owned by Jackeys Creek Investors LLC, according to county records. Hill Rogers, broker-in-charge at Cameron Management, is the managing member of that entity. 

Brunswick County voters could be asked to help finance the project through a “county-wide municipal bond” referendum on the November 2023 ballot, Leland town manager David Hollis told councilmembers in a Dec. 23 email. 

The baseball group will invest up to $100 million to bring the venue to reality, including restaurants, hotel venues and the stadium itself, Hollis said. It would be a publicly owned venue privately operated through a lease agreement, with revenue set to offset debt service from the bond. 

The chief operating officer of the architecture and engineering firm, Jones, Petrie, Rafinski (JPR); the executive vice president of business operations of the Texas Rangers; and the president and vice president of marketing for REV Entertainment traveled to Leland for the December visit, emails show.

REV typically contracts with JPR, REV president Sean Decker wrote to a Leland official and Earp, and the firm invoices the paying entity for reimbursement. 

According to a presentation shared at the info sessions, the project could break ground by spring 2024 with a March 2026 opening day. 

“The location chosen in the northern end of the County is preferred by the baseball group because of the separation from other similar venues and the untapped and growing market throughout northern Brunswick County and New Hanover County,” Hollis wrote in his email to council, briefing them on the plans thus far. 

Why not Wilmington?

It’s been more than a decade since a formal effort was underway to welcome a minor-league baseball team back to the region. 

In 2012, Wilmington voters rejected a bond referendum to bring a $37-million stadium to the riverfront. Mandalay Baseball and Atlanta Braves had aimed to bring a minor league team to the area if the city would construct the 6,000-seat arena. But about 70% of voters were unwilling to foot the bill through a 2.5-cent property tax increase. 

That site today is home to Riverfront Park and Live Oak Bank Pavilion, which opened in 2021 and used proceeds from the voter-approved 2016 Parks Bond. 

“I think anytime you go through something like that, and it doesn't pass, it sucks a lot of energy out of a project like that because of a sentiment of, ‘Well, OK, I guess the public doesn’t want that as much as they want something else,’” said Matt Perry, co-owner of Wilmington Sharks Baseball.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who championed the cause at the time, said the original effort was to expand entertainment options for families and spur revitalization downtown.

"As a community, we decided against that route and landed instead on our new Riverfront Park and Live Oak Bank Pavilion, which has been a tremendous success," Saffo said. "I think the interest you’re seeing, not just in Wilmington but our surrounding region, speaks to the hard work we’ve put into making this place attractive for investment, job creation, and making our local economy stronger and more resilient. That’s paying dividends with new opportunities and quality of life for those who live here, and that’s exciting to see for our community."

Since the ‘90s, Wilmington’s hometown baseball team has been the Sharks, a summer collegiate baseball league in the Coastal Plain League. Seating capacity at the Sharks venue is about 1,350, Perry said, with the ability to accommodate up to 2,000 fans with standing room only. 

Attendance at Sharks’ games has rebounded since the pandemic, Perry said, with a “solid year” in 2022. Perry’s firm, National Sports Services, first purchased the team in 2017. “It was losing pretty significant money and we've been able to march through the pandemic and get the team in the black,” he said.

Other urban hubs in the state – Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Asheville, Winston-Salem and others – have their own minor league teams and stadiums, but Wilmington hasn’t been able to land the pairing. 

“You can see why the Cape Fear region has always been on people’s radars in trying to figure out the stadium piece,” Perry said, “because it is one of the largest regional markets, certainly in the Carolinas, that doesn’t have a [minor league] team.” 

Talks to renovate or expand the Sharks’ footprint at Legion Stadium haven’t gained momentum over the years, Perry said, for a few reasons. First, “How do you pay for it?" he said. "That’s something we’ve been wrestling with to try to upgrade Buck Hardee [Field]...We absolutely would love to have more capacity and more amenities for the fans, and it seems like every year we add something, but it’s an older facility so it can use all that we can muster up.” 

Another complication is the shared tenants in Legion Stadium, which hosts New Hanover High School home soccer and football games and historically, the Wilmington Hammerheads before the team left town in 2016. (A separate, unrelated effort is also afoot to potentially revive the Hammerheads with a new sports complex no more than a 10- to 15-minute drive from downtown.)

And of course, there’s perhaps the biggest hiccup of all: A lack of developable land in Wilmington, which Leland has plenty of. Proximity to a largely built-out Wilmington has helped fuel the younger town’s growth, which resulted in a nearly doubled population over the past decade. 

The Texas baseball group aims to develop a smaller version of the Rangers’ development in Arlington, Texas, emails show. In 2020, the Rangers played for the first time on a new home turf, Globe Life Field, with a seating capacity of about 40,300, according to the team website. 

Leland mayor Brenda Bozeman said she plans to see a similar ballpark for herself during an upcoming family trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina. “I feel this is a great opportunity for Brunswick County residents of all ages,” she said Thursday. 

A county spokesperson said discussions about the facility are still early in the process.

In a statement, Leland shared that a press conference on the plans will take place later this month or early next month. A previously planned press conference for Feb. 1, emails show, was canceled. “The Town of Leland is excited to have interest from REV Entertainment to work together with both Brunswick County and the Town to develop a world-class development concept with sports and entertainment as the anchor,” the town shared in its statement. “We look forward to learning more about their interest and developing a potential partnership in the coming months.”

Emails show the baseball group representatives were set to return to the area earlier this week. 

In a statement that largely mirrors the town's, an REV Entertainment representative said the firm is "thrilled" to work with town and county officials and is excited to publicly launch the partnership in the coming months.

A week after the December visit, Leland economic and community development director, Gary Vidmar, looped in the town’s economic development consultant on the news. 

“Please keep in mind that we are very early in our discussions,” he wrote. “We are far from a done deal.”

Correction: This article has been corrected to update the location a of minor league team in Durham. 
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