Rumor will soon become reality for the Huntsville Stars, the Southern League franchise long favored to relocate to a planned new ballpark in Biloxi, Miss.
The Southern League announced Friday afternoon that it has approved the sale of the franchise by its longtime owner Miles Prentice to a group headed by veteran operator Ken Young. The deal still needs approval from Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, but it is unlikely to face any opposition.
Young—who also owns the Albuquerque Isotopes (Pacific Coast League), Norfolk Tides (International), Bowie Baysox (Eastern) and Frederick Keys (Carolina)—is partnering with Tim Bennett to bring the team to a new ballpark in downtown Biloxi, adjacent to MGM Grand's Beau Rivage casino and across the street from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Bennett was behind the building of the Mississippi Braves' ballpark in Pearl, and has orchestrated the plans to build the new venue in Biloxi. That stadium is expected to cost roughly $36 million and will be paid for by the city of Biloxi and with a $15 million contribution by the state of Mississippi from its portion of the $1 billion settlement of the Gulf oil spill with BP.
"Given the circumstances we were faced with (in Huntsville), it is a fine solution," Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner said.
Those circumstances were Huntsville's inability to replace Joe Davis Stadium, the Stars' 28-year-old home. The ballpark does not compare to the newer venues around the sport, no longer meets Minor League Baseball's facility standards and limited Huntsville's ability to attract fans and turn a profit.
The Stars regularly finished at or near the bottom of the Southern League in attendance. In 2013, Huntsville averaged 1,877 fans—the fewest of any Double-A franchise.
Prentice unsuccessfully lobbied the city to replace or renovate Joe Davis Stadium several times but failed to raise the necessary funding. It didn't help that many in Huntsville viewed Prentice, who runs a law practice in New York City, as an outsider and part of the problem. Huntsville mayor Tommy Battle described Prentice to local media as an absentee owner. Prentice could not be reached for comment.
O'Conner did not rule out the possibility of minor league baseball returning to Huntsville one day and said he has had discussions with Battle about the city's future. However, it will not do so without a new ballpark.
"Huntsville has struggled," O'Conner said. "I had a very good conversation with Tommy Battle. They have some things they need to do. He is aware of them. Joe Davis Stadium was not a long-term solution and it was getting to the point where it was not even a short-term solution."