(updated) Hopes for Carolina League baseball coming to Wilmington, N.C., took a significant step forward when the Atlanta Braves and Mandalay Baseball Properties announced this morning at al press conference that they have a plan in place to privately finance and build a new ballpark.
In February, Mandalay and the Braves formed a joint ownership group and reached an agreement in principle to purchase the Lynchburg Hillcats and move the franchise to Wilmington. The deal was contingent on the group building a new ballpark on the riverfront in downtown Wilmington, and in the following months local leaders and residents raised concerns about using public money to build the park.
The group's announcement is an effort to get over the biggest hurdle in bringing minor league baseball to back to Wilmington. The city had a Southern League franchise in 1995-96, and a South Atlantic League franchise in 2001, but both quickly moved to greener pastures when their stadium plans fell through. The teams played at UNC Wilmington's ballpark, which is not a viable long-term alternative.
The project would still require public money. Braves executive vice president of business operations Mike Plant, who represented the team at the press conference in Wilmington, said the private-public partnership creates greater flexibility and protects the city against hazards like cost overrun.
"It is still a private-public partnership that is driven by the public sector and still requires everyone having an investment in the project, including the city," Plant said in a telephone interview after the press conference. "This now gives us an opportunity to put the whole development team together and put another viable option in front of the city council."
The Braves and Mandalay will present the plan to the council in mid-May, Plant said, adding that they may propose several options for the council to consider. Plant believes the new financing model creates the best opportunity to have the ballpark completed in time for the 2014 season.
One benefit to private financing is that it will create the opportunity for lower annual payments on the construction debt, Plant said. Through private financing, the ownership group will be able to secure a 30-year loan, whereas the city is only allowed to take on 20 years of debt.
"This is a private initiative now, but it's a public-private partnership," Mandalay president of baseball development Rich Neumann said at the press conference.
The Braves own all of their minor league affiliates except at the high Class A level, and Plant points to the organization's experience in building ballparks through a private-public financing model as a reason why he believes this project can get done.
"There is strong interest in the community (for the project)," Plant said. "Yes, there is an opposition group, but there always is opposition. The majority of people want to see this happen, and the city leadership is extremely supportive. They see the value . . .
"And one thing I keep reiterating to people is this is Braves country. We want to be here."