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Business Beat

By J.J. Cooper
June 30, 2005

ALLENTOWN, Pa.--Minor league owners Joseph Finley and Craig Stein could end the Lehigh Valley's decade-long quest for minor league baseball by making Allentown home to a Triple-A team in 2008.

But the International League's Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons may oppose the move, fearing the team could lose fans to a new ballpark less than 70 miles away.

Finley and Stein began working with Lehigh County last year to build a ballpark for an affiliated minor league franchise. The county had been competing for a state grant in hopes of bringing an independent Atlantic League franchise to Williams Township, just south of Easton.

When Lehigh County submitted its new ballpark proposal, Stein and Finley said they had signed a purchase agreement for a minor league team. Confidentiality agreements prevented them from disclosing level or affiliation, and the pair only indicated they expected to move a Class A or Double-A team.

But as state lawmakers finalized a stadium financing package this summer, word came out that the International League's Ottawa Lynx, currently an Orioles affiliate, would move to Allentown. Finley declined to comment on the rumors, again citing confidentiality agreements.

Lynx owner Ray Pecor denied receiving any proposal to purchase his franchise. The Vermont businessman, however, has bemoaned the team's attendance and has made no secret he's shopping the team. Sources in Harrisburg confirmed Stein and Finley had an agreement to purchase the Lynx. Jim Beattie, the Orioles' general manager, said the organization would not oppose Ottawa's move.

But Red Barons general manager Jeremy Ruby said his team might ask the International League to keep a team out of Allentown. Red Barons officials worry not only about the team being so close by, but also that the Phillies would eventually move their affiliation to the Lehigh Valley, about an hour from Philadelphia.

As for the stadium, Lehigh County will build and own a 7,000-seat ballpark on 43 acres. The county will receive $17 million in state grants for the project and use $700,000 annual lease payments and $320,000 in yearly hotel taxes to pay remaining construction bonds. State lawmakers passed legislation in early July giving Lehigh and Northampton counties the authority to boost the hotel tax. It's now up to Lehigh County commissioners to approve the increase, which is expected in the coming weeks.

--ED SIEGER

The Express-Times (Easton, Pa.)

New Arkansas Park Moves Forward

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.--The Arkansas Travelers and the city of North Little Rock took a major step forward with plans for a new ballpark on the north side of the Arkansas River.

The Texas League franchise signed on to be principal tenant of the proposed new stadium for 20 years, clearing the way for the North Little Rock city council to schedule a sales tax vote on Aug. 9. If voters approve the 1 percent, two-year sales tax increase, the $28 million ballpark could be ready by Opening Day 2007. The sales tax will also provide $5 million for a senior citizens center, which could help sway undecided voters.

The team and local leaders had been at an impasse over how much the Travelers would contribute to pay off the ballpark's construction bonds. The parties reached an agreement that called for a 20-year lease with successive five-year renewal options. The Travelers will use gate receipts, concessions, advertising and luxury seat revenue to operate the club and stadium and make minor capital improvements. After those expenses, the Travelers and North Little Rock will split remaining revenue.

The new ballpark would be part of a 22-acre development with condominiums, restaurants, shops and offices. The ballpark would sit on 11.6 acres, purchased for $5.8 million by Little Rock financier Warren Stephens last summer. Stephens donated the land in exchange for naming rights for the ballpark.

Drawings show the ballpark next to the Broadway Bridge spanning the Arkansas River between North Little Rock and Little Rock, the state capitol. The 7,000-seat ballpark, with luxury boxes and an outfield berm, would open on a view of the Little Rock skyline.

"This thing is ready to go," Travelers general manager Bill Valentine said. "We promise we will have a state-of-the-art Double-A stadium with probably the most wonderful view for a minor league baseball park in America."

The Travelers have played in 6,083-seat Ray Winder Field since it opened in 1932, but the ballpark has long been in need of major improvements and has been granted waivers by Major League Baseball to allow the team to keep playing there.

Arkansas has been affiliated with the Angels since 2001, after its 35-year relationship with the Cardinals dissolved. Angels general manager Bill Stoneman said the organization has never quibbled over the condition of Ray Winder Field, but he was happy with the new development.

"Baseball's got some tough standards," Stoneman said. "Ray Winder probably doesn't meet those standards in a number of areas. But we've not made these an issue."

--TODD TRAUB

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

AROUND THE MINORS

• Minor league teams have tried their share of minimalist promotions in recent years, but the Lake Elsinore Storm (California) took it to a new level with their Nothing Night promotion. With no one running the ticket office (or working anywhere else in the stadium), fans were invited to enter free of charge and lay claim to any seat in the house. Fans brought their own snacks and beverages because nothing was going on at the concession stands, and the bathrooms were even closed. Fans had port-a-johns outside the front gates, and a lunch cart was in the parking lot. With no music and the video board shut down, the front-office staff lounged on couches set up on The Diamond’s concourse.

"The look on people’s faces was great; they were not sure what to do," assistant director of ticket operations Gretchen Todd said. "With nothing going on, people didn’t know what to do with themselves as they entered the stadium. I overheard one fan say ‘Is this a joke?' "

The team said the idea behind the promotion was to show fans how much work it takes to put on a game by showing them what it would be like if no one worked, and to allow the fans to focus on baseball, taking the game back to its roots. The team said the promotion was a huge success, though the announced attendance was, of course . . . nothing.

• The Lowell Spinners (New York-Penn) also made their ballpark quieter for at least one game with Cell Phone Free Night. When fans entered the park they were encouraged to check in their cell phones and watch the game without them, making them eligible to have their cell phone bill paid for a month or to win a new cell phone. Just 17 fans were willing to give up their phones for the night. "It was really interesting to watch, as people did not want to part with their cell phones," said Jon Goode, the team's director of corporate communications. "It was an uncomfortable feeling for many of them."

• The HWS Group, led by managing partner Michael Savit, has agreed to buy the Modesto Nuts, pending approval by the California League and Minor League Baseball. Savit worked for the Cleveland-based International Management Group (IMG), where he specialized in event management, from 1981-97. He and his brother Jeffrey established HWS Group, named in honor of their late father, Herbert W. Savit, in 1998. The group has owned several minor league teams and currently owns the Mobile BayBears (Southern).

 
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