The race for the Ottawa market took an unusual turn when city leaders recommended late last week that the independent Can-Am League—not the presumed-winner Eastern League—should bring a team to the vacant, and recently desirable, downtown ballpark.
For two years, the Eastern League has been considered the front-runner to expand north of the border, and since last winter Mandalay Baseball Properties had been in negotiations with city leaders about costs and plans to renovate Ottawa Stadium—which last hosted affiliated ball in 2007. But Mandalay's price tag was too steep—it was seeking $40 million to renovate and maintain the ballpark—so Ottawa went in the opposite direction at the end of its public bidding process. It aligned with the Can-Am League at a fraction of the cost Mandalay was seeking—$750,000 for renovations plus $400,000 a year for maintenance and upkeep—and will begin play in 2015.
A finance committee approved the decision today while seeking an out-clause after 10 years be included in the lease with the Can-Am League. Only approval from the Ottawa city council is needed to make the deal a formality.
The announcement was truly a stunner, to both the victor and loser. The city seemed geared toward bringing in the Eastern League, evidenced by a group in support of Double-A baseball that had lined up over 3,000 good-faith commitments for season tickets. From Mandalay's perspective, Ottawa appeared on board with its vision for a new ballpark—full of the amenities for fans and players found at modern ballparks around the minors—before the company responded to Ottawa's request for offers (RFO) in August.
"We're a little confused as to what went wrong," Mandalay Baseball CEO Art Matin said. "Obviously we had a vision of what it would take for affiliated minor league baseball to be successful in Ottawa. We worked hard to lay out what the vision would be for city leadership and offered a very detailed response to the RFO . . .
"I think at the end of the day the decision was fundamentally financially driven. Our ultimate cost-in went up a bit from our initial discussions, but we certainly hoped to get a chance to sit at a table and hammer through that. There obviously was some room to move (the price) if we needed to. We never got that opportunity."
On the other side of the coin is the Can-Am League, which did not get involved in the Ottawa sweepstakes until late this summer and did not have high hopes when responding to the RFO in August. So count Can-Am League commissioner Miles Wolff among those surprised by Ottawa's decision.
"We just were reading the papers where it seemed like the Eastern League was set," Wolff said. "But the city asked for an RFO and we just responded because we thought we should. But we didn't think we had much of a shot. It turns out we did."
And what was the difference that put the Can-Am League on top?
“40 million dollars," Wolff said.
Mandalay Baseball dreams big with its ballparks. The company's stable of five teams includes the Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (which debuted a new $43 million ballpark this season) and Dayton Dragons (the low Class A Midwest League franchise that set a new standard for consecutive sellouts). Mandalay owns successful franchises in Oklahoma City (Triple-A Pacific Coast League) and Frisco (Double-A Texas League). Its only club that doesn't produce is in the Eastern League, where the Erie SeaWolves regularly finish near the bottom in attendance. And it is likely the Mandalay viewed Ottawa as a way out of Erie.
Mandalay's plans in Ottawa called for many of the bells and whistles of a modern ballpark, including a concourse that wraps around the entire ballpark, luxury suites and club seating, a playground, and a variety of concession options.
"If you're not going to do it right then you shouldn't do it," Matin said.
"We're disappointed because we feel that Ottawa is a market that deserves high-quality minor league baseball," Matin said. "A team could do well there in the right circumstances. We felt that it needed to have a compelling facility with a lot of things to offer not only diehard fans but casual fans and families as well . . . We thought we would have done very well at it, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen."
Also part of Mandalay's vision for a new ballpark is a public financing model. That was the case in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where PNC Field's $43.3 million price tag was financed through state and local funds with Mandalay agreeing to a 30-year lease at roughly $900,000 annually. Mandalay's bid to bring a Carolina League franchise to Wilmington, N.C., failed when voters rejected a property tax increase to fund a $37 million ballpark.
Matin doesn't see a connection between the Ottawa and Wilmington projects, noting that Wilmington city leaders supported the project before the referendum was voted down. The proposed $40 million price tag in Ottawa, Matin said, is similar to the cost of other recent ballpark projects.
Yet local leaders in Ottawa suggest that Mandalay was seeking too much.
"I think Mandalay overplayed its hand a bit. They probably thought we had no choice but to take their bid," Ottawa councilman Rick Chiarelli told the Ottawa Citizen. "While their offer would probably net out the best result for taxpayers, it has more risk."
Mandalay's grand plans stand in contrast to the Can-Am League's more modest, and affordable, vision for Ottawa.
"It's not a bad ballpark, but (Mandalay) wanted to make it a really phenomenal place," Wolff said. "We weren't in that position, so we said let's just get it back into playing shape and we'll get it up and running again."
By seeking a discounted price, Ottawa may very well get what its paying for with the Can-Am League, which has shrunk from eight teams in 2008 to just five last season. It features steady franchises in the Quebec Capitales (which won the past five league titles) and Rockland Boulders—both of which totaled just over 140,000 fans while averaging 3,000 per night last season. The New Jersey Jackals and Trois-Rivieres Aigles did about half that number while the Newark Bears brought in just 21,288 fans—or 453 per game—last year.
"We need good cities," Wolff said.
And he believes that Ottawa will be just that. The next step for the league is to find an ownership group before taking the field in 2015.
"It's a city of a million people. The ballpark is in a good location. It fits in certainly with (our geography). We think it will do well," Wolff said.