A Southern League franchise may be on the way to a new ballpark in Biloxi, Miss., perhaps as soon as next season.
Which franchise will be moving there is not clear, but several sources confirmed it will be a Southern League team. Officials announced plans for a 7,000-seat venue in downtown Biloxi, beside the MGM Grand's Beau Rivage casino, this afternoon at a press conference attended by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Biloxi mayor A.J. Holloway.
Southern League president Lori Webb said that she has not received an application for a franchise relocation or sale and that she would not comment further.
Bringing a team to Biloxi has been a nine-year project for Tim Bennett, the president of Jackson-based Overtime Sports and the leader of the movement that brought a Southern League franchise to Pearl, Miss., in 2005. In an interview earlier today, Bennett said that the ballpark site is already being prepared for groundbreaking and that construction could be completed in time for the start of the 2014 season.
"We started soil tests and some things that we need to have done a month ago. The renderings and drawings were started six months ago. We're down the road a little further than usual," Bennett said. "The land is readily available, so we've got some things working in our favor."
The city of Biloxi is contributing $21 million toward the $36 million project. The remaining $15 million will be provided by the state of Mississippi from the $1 billion that five states are sharing as part of the Gulf oil spill settlement from BP. The ballpark will sit one block from the Gulf of Mexico on a plot of land of owned by MGM Resorts International, which will allow the city to convert a parking lot as part of a 20-year rent-free lease.
Bennett described the site as ideal, and said the ballpark "will serve as the exclamation point" to Biloxi's recovery from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"With this coming to fruition, that is something that I have heard the most, that we have completed the coast," he said.
The team that will call the new ballpark home has not been announced. Bennett said he would not comment until the process has been approved but that an agreement is in place. "We wouldn't build it if they weren't going to come," he said.
Poor attendance and aging ballparks make a pair of Southern League franchises the most likely candidates to be on the move.
The Huntsville Stars have finished last in the league in attendance in each of the past four seasons and rank ninth out of 10 teams this year with a 2,007 fans per game average. Team owner Miles Prentice has failed to persuade the city to either pay for a renovation of 28-year-old Joe W. Davis Municipal Stadium (the oldest ballpark in the league) or build a new venue. Prentice, who did not respond to a request for an interview, told the Huntsville Times in December that despite its ballpark situation, the team is not leaving town.
When asked to address the perception that the Stars’ future in Huntsville is on shaky ground, Prentice said: "I can't. I’ve tried. I’m going to stop trying (to fight the perception). We do what we can do. We try to put the best product we can on the field . . .
"(General manager Buck Rogers) has some good things coming in. We’ve got some new sponsorships. That’s what it’s going to take. The ballpark, physically, is as clean as it’s ever been. Buck does a good job. He’s traded out. He’s redoing a lot of suites."
Prentice agreed two years ago to extend the team's lease through the 2015 season.
Another potential candidate would be the Jackson Generals, who are drawing a Southern League-low 1,652 per game to the Ballpark at Jackson, which was built in 1998. The franchise, formerly known as the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, has ranked last or next-to-last in attendance every year since 2003 and is based in the smallest market in the league. However in 2011, the franchise agreed to extend its lease with the city through 2020 with a $1 million buyout clause.