Leland could be approaching its Field of Dreams moment. Since late last year, town officials have been in discussions about the possibility of bringing a minor league team to the area. It’s more a piney woods than cornfield scenario, but the potential for success, say proponents, is significant.
Although representatives of the Texas Rangers, REV Entertainment and the architecture and engineering firm involved visited Leland in December to scout and confer, officials contacted are not saying much at present about the proposed project. When asked to comment, Leland’s economic and community development director Gary Vidmar limited his remarks to what appears on the town’s website.
“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. We look forward to learning more about their interest and developing a potential partnership in the coming months.”
Vidmar said REV Entertainment, Brunswick County and the town of Leland plan a press conference and will share more information then. (Update: REV Entertainment, Brunswick County and Leland announced Friday they will share more information this week with media outlets.)
When contacted, a REV representative was likewise short on details.
“REV Entertainment is thrilled to work together with both Brunswick County and the Town of Leland to develop a world-class development concept with sports and entertainment as the anchor,” said Madison SanFilippo, REV Entertainment’s vice president of marketing and communications. “We are excited to publicly launch the partnership with an announcement in the coming months.”
SWINGING FOR THE FENCES
Public documents have provided some details about the potential Leland deal. The Dallas-Fort Worthbased Texas Rangers club proposes building a new stadium complex on land abutting Brunswick Forest as part of the Jackeys Creek development. Preliminary plans for such a complex show the 1,400-acre site could accommodate a 4,000-seat stadium and about 1,750 parking places.
The north Brunswick project would involve more than just a place for the team to play and fans to park. In addition to the stadium, the proposed complex would include restaurants and hotels. It would be publicly owned but privately operated through a lease agreement, with revenues offsetting debt service from the bond financing the project.
“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,” Town Manager David Hollis wrote Leland councilmembers in a Dec. 23 email.
REV Entertainment, which represents the Texas Rangers and already manages two of the team’s minor league franchises in North Carolina, would oversee an investment of up to $100 million to bring the venue to reality, according to a statement from Hollis in a Feb. 2 Business Journal story.
LOOKING AHEAD OF THE GAME
The “publicly owned” part of the proposal means that the public could be asked to approve a countywide municipal bond to help finance the project. Hollis’ Dec. 23 email to councilmembers stated a bond referendum could be on the November 2023 ballot.
That step is reminiscent of a failed attempt in 2012 by Wilmington city officials to bring an Atlanta Braves minor league team to the Port City. Mandalay Baseball and the Braves proposed to bring the franchise to town if Wilmington would build a $37 million, 6,000-seat stadium, necessitating a 2.5-cent property tax increase. Opponents of the project succeeded in putting the issue on the ballot, where it was soundly defeated. The northern Riverfront land eyed for a minor league stadium complex is now the site of Wilmington’s Riverfront Park and Live Oak Bank Pavilion, and commercial growth has happened on its own around the site without the stadium.
Financing and revenues are key to a minor league team’s sustainability. During the pandemic, quite a few diamonds were in the rough as venues closed and revenues dried up. Teams struggled and some have had to restructure their contracts and their financing. There is a current “contraction” within the minor leagues to reduce the number of teams.
Winston-Salem is determined to keep its High-A Chicago White Sox affiliate, the Dash, in the black. Before COVID struck, the team made an annual payment to the city of $1.8 million, which covered Winston-Salem’s annual debt payments on the construction of Truist Stadium, the Dash’s home. According to assistant city manager Ben Rowe, the city provided some financial relief to the stadium.
“Toward the end of 2020, Major League Baseball announced that it would reduce the number of minor league teams. To better position itself to weather this ‘contraction,’ Dash officials entered discussions with city officials to structure a new lease agreement that would reduce the annual lease payment to an amount more in line with what other minor league teams in the state paid municipalities for the use of their stadiums (for example, Durham, Kannapolis and Fayetteville),” Rowe wrote in an email. “In August 2021, the City Council approved a new lease agreement that reduced the annual lease payment to $750,000.”
Subsequently, Winston-Salem approved $1.8 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to replace the nonexistent 2020 Truist Stadium lease payment income, Rowe added. But to avoid being squeezed out of the minor leagues, the Dash had to do more.
“As a result of contraction within Minor League Baseball, the remaining teams now are working to meet new MLB-required standards for their stadiums,” Rowe wrote. “In Winston-Salem, the city council appropriated $5 million in the FY 22-23 budget to provide for upgrades to the visiting team clubhouse, expanded batting facilities and Wi-Fi at Truist Stadium. The city must complete these upgrades by Opening Day 2024. I know that other municipal stadiums are having to meet these standards as well.”
REV Entertainment, however, can point to its two successful Texas Rangers minor league affiliates in the state: the High-A Hickory Crawdads and the Kinston-based Down East Wood Ducks, a Single-A team. In all, North Carolina currently boasts 10 minor league teams.
If voters do approve the bond and all parties agree to the north Brunswick project, officials have said it could break ground by spring 2024 with a March 2026 opening day.
IF YOU BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME?
A minor league baseball team can do more than offer wholesome entertainment at a budget-pleasing price, according to evidence from other areas. Some host cities have seen their teams become a means of uniting the community and attracting further economic development.
Fayetteville is one example. When the Houston Astros showed interest in developing a minor league franchise there, the city in devoted $40 million of a $100 million downtown revitalization project to building a stadium on a former 14-acre parking lot. The Astros put in $14 million and agreed in December 2016 to keep the Woodpeckers in town for at least 30 years.
The economic impact has been significant, according to a May story in American City and County, a publication for local governments. The area around the stadium is growing, with apartments and businesses moving into the downtown area.
With a municipal services district overlaying the tax increment financing city officials created around the stadium site, the city has seen a 20% increase in the values of downtown real estate, the American City and County story stated.
Since the Dash moved to a new stadium in downtown Winston-Salem in 2010, baseball-related activity has generated economic impact in the surrounding area. Chris Murphy, the city’s director of planning and development services, demonstrated this with two aerial maps – one from 2005, when the stadium planning began, and one from 2022. They show a changed landscape.
And the Dash fans are back, according to Brian DeAngelis, the team’s president and general manager.
“In 2022, the Dash had already seen pre-COVID attendance at the ballpark,” he wrote. “The growth of Winston-Salem along with development around the ballpark certainly helps the growth trends, but additionally residents find the Dash as a local, family-friendly and affordable way to spend discretionary income. Currently, the Dash are on pace to see a 30% increase in attendance for 2023.”