The future of minor league baseball in Scranton looks significantly brighter after new Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett approved a $20 million state grant last week, as part of a $40 million stadium renovation project.
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise has been on a years-long quest to spruce up its deteriorating ballpark, which now ranks behind only Buffalo's ballpark as the oldest in the International League. While Buffalo's Coca-Cola Field has been frequently updated in its 23 years, however, PNC Field has not been since opening in 1989.
The state grant gives ballpark renovation efforts a huge boost, though plenty of questions still need resolution—ranging from the status of the team's sale to where the Yankees will play during construction—before it is time to roll out the wrecking ball.
"There are more questions than answers right now," International League president Randy Mobley said. "Hopefully over the next several weeks, we will be able to fill in some of those questions with answers."
The renovation project was put in motion last year when outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell signed off on the $20 million grant from the state's redevelopment fund. Corbett had spent the past four months reviewing the project before approving it.
The Lackawanna County stadium authority will match the grant with $20 million to complete the project. The majority of that money will come from the proceeds of a previously agreed upon $14.6 million sale of the team to SWB Yankees LLC—the entity made up of the New York Yankees and Mandalay Baseball that currently operates the team.
The deal assures that Triple-A baseball will remain in Scranton, as terms include the new ownership group signing a 30-year lease. The club's annual rent will also increase from $125,000 to $750,000.
The sale, which was agreed upon as an option for Mandalay when it took over operations of the club in 2007, has yet to be brought before the International League for approval, and is likely to face challenges.
Neighboring Luzerne County has filed a lawsuit claiming it is owed half of the proceeds of the sale because it spent $1 million, half the purchase price of the franchise, to help bring the team to the area in 1989. The county also contends that SWB Yankees is getting a below-market deal compared to previous sales of Triple-A clubs. Lackawanna County countersued for $20 million, half of what it claims to have spent operating the team.
Determining an accurate value of the team will be one of the International League's tasks during the approval process, Mobley said, and the process includes factors beyond previous sales figures, such as market size and quality of facilities.
"Some folks weigh previous sales very heavily," Mobley said. "Where this league will collectively judge things remains to be seen . . . I have long been of the opinion that while (previous sales) is one of the factors, there are many unique factors to these sales. To simply say that we should get the same as the last one or more than the last one, I don't think there is a whole lot of value solely on what the last sale was."
The most recent sale of a Triple-A team came just last week when the Las Vegas 51s (Pacific Coast) were sold Texas businessman Chris Milam for an undisclosed figure. But the number is more than $20 million, team executive director Don Logan confirmed. The only other Triple-A team in the last 10 years to sell for more than $20 million, Mobley said, was Salt Lake (Pacific Coast) in 2003.
Last year, Portland (Pacific Coast) owner Merritt Paulson sold the Beavers to a group headed by Padres CEO Jeff Moorad for a price reported in the $15 million-$16 million range that Paulson had paid for the team in 2007. That team will spend at least two seasons in Tucson as it waits on a proposed ballpark in the San Diego suburb of Escondido.
The last International League team sale came in 2007, when Ottawa Lynx owner Ray Pecor sold the franchise (which was facing debt and poor attendance) to Joe Finley and Craig Stein for a reported $14 million so they could move it to Allentown, Pa. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs debuted in 2008.
Once the sale is approved and before renovation gets under way, the Yankees will have to decide where they will play during construction. One option would be for the team to stay at PNC Field while the renovation is spread out over two years during the offseason—similar to what the Harrisburg Senators (Eastern) and Visalia Rawhide (California) did recently. The other option would be for the team to play in another facility for one season.
Mobley said preliminary discussions on both scenarios took place in the IL meeting last December during the Winter Meetings, but it was a general conversation where they were "just throwing everything up against the wall."
"Generally speaking, the (league) directors are supportive, as am I, of the least amount of disruption to the schedule that can occur," Mobley said. "That is one of the subjects that we discussed a bit back in the winter. What from a construction standpoint is doable and what from a schedule standpoint is reasonable and doable there."
A telephone call to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre president Kristen Rose was not immediately returned.