The heavy-hitters at the top of the Atlanta Braves' food chain took to the stage at the Wilmington Convention Center on Tuesday to tout minor league baseball in Wilmington, N.C.
Former Atlanta Braves' Manager Bobby Cox, Braves' President John Schuerholz and Braves' Chief Financial Officer Chip Moore joined Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and Mandalay Baseball principal Rich Neumann at the Greater Wilmington Business Journal's power breakfast, "Let's play ball?"
"This is a wonderful place," Schuerholz said. "We'd love to be here. We'd love to be partners with you in this. We would like to see this happen."
The city is negotiating with Mandalay and the Braves to bring a minor league team here and plans to hire a project manager to analyze the cost and impact of a potential public stadium at the April 3 council meeting. Moore said during the panel discussion that the Braves would be paying between 20 percent and 25 percent of the overall obligation for the stadium through rent. He also said the Braves would be putting money into the team and spending about $2 million a year on food and equipment for the stadium.
"We buy local," he said.
Where the rest comes from is the ever-pressing question. The projected cost of buying land and building a stadium is up to $40 million. The city is facing a projected $4.5 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The city is looking at expenditures around $90.5 million and $86 million in revenue.
Mayor Bill Saffo said there is still the chance that a private entity could come forward with a donation for the stadium. But it's also possible the city would have to raise property taxes to finance the stadium.
The Braves have offered a minimum 20-year lease up to 30 years for a minor league team they would co-own with Mandalay and relocate from Lynchburg, Va., if the city builds a stadium. Officials said Tuesday they would like it to be downtown on the river but that's not a deal breaker.
"We are committed to Wilmington, be it downtown or somewhere else in the city," Moore said.
City officials say they have received interests from a few property owners but they are tight lipped about the exact locations, other than land in front of PPD downtown.
"There are other sites that we will consider other than downtown," Saffo said. "It may not happen downtown. We may not be able to negotiate a price with the landowner."
Neumann said Mandalay projects the stadium would bring in 350,000 visitors a year. That's an attendance of 5,000 a game for 70 games, with the potential of more who would come for outside events such as movie night, concerts, Bingo at the ballpark, a beer festival or others. The stadium would have a capacity between 6,000 and 7,000.
It's now or never for minor league baseball in Wilmington, Neumann told the crowd of more than 500.
Neumann said his company approached three teams about Wilmington and the first said no, the second was hesitant and the Braves quickly cut in front of the second team to jump on board. They want to open with the 2014 season and to do that would need to start construction by the end of this year, early next year.
"I've got a couple of gold shovels in the trunk of my rental car," Neumann joked after an audience member questioned the quick timeline. Braves officials said they have built stadiums as quickly as a year to 18 months.
Neumann said there would be a parade of problems for the Braves and Mandalay to try to bring a team to the Port City if it doesn't get a commitment now. The Braves have an option now to buy the Lynchburg Hillcats and move them to Wilmington.
Audience members were concerned about the team leaving Wilmington like it's leaving Lynchburg. But the baseball leaders said they don't own Lynchburg and would see a move to Wilmington as a chance at the stability they have been seeking.
"The Braves and Mandalay want to become, as we have in other communities, part of the fabric of the community," Neumann said. "It's not a transient, let's get in there and take what we can and leave."
Cox said other communities that have Braves minor league teams have seen economic development spur from stadiums. He referenced the stadium in Pearl, Miss., saying it was built in the middle of nowhere, and when he went back years later for Bobby Cox bobble head night, he thought he was lost because he was in an area flush with hotels and restaurants.
"The economic growth around that stadium was incredible," he said.
Saffo said the potential for economic development will be key as city council considers the stadium. The negotiation period ends in July with an option for an extension.
Saffo said it's not as though the city can wave a magic wand and issue debt.
"You have a pretty elaborate process that you have to go through before you can issue debt," he said.
And an opposition group is circulating a petition that could slow the process. The group is trying to get the needed nearly 3,000 signatures for a citizen-initiated ordinance that would force the issue on a ballot in a special election.
New Hanover County's drop out of talks on baseball also slowed the process. The county decided earlier this year to stop working with the city on financing for a baseball stadium after the council decided to annex an apartment project that was previously denied by the county commissioners.
"It's unfortunate what happened in the breakdown of the negotiations," Saffo said. "This is a very serious endeavor. I think they ought to be at the table and I think they will be."
County Commissioners Jonathan Barfield and Jason Thompson showed up for the power breakfast.
"It's all about jobs," Barfield, who also toured the Durham Bulls' stadium with the city council on Friday, said. "Hopefully our guys will keep their ears open, their minds open and become a part of this discussion."
Saffo asked Wilmington residents to be patient and hold judgment until the city can determine what the real cost and impact of the stadium would be.
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