Baseball Votes: Resounding No In Wilmington, Yes In El Paso

It may not have earned a projection on cable news or made a blip on John King’s interactive map, but ballpark ballot measures certainly got the vote out in Wilmington, N.C., and El Paso, Texas.

Wilmington residents overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to pay for a $37 million ballpark project through an increase in property taxes, with about 70 percent of voters opposing the referendum. The vote grinds to a halt the Atlanta Braves’ plan to purchase the Lynchburg Hillcats (Carolina) and move the franchise to Wilmington as part of a partnership with Mandalay Baseball Properties, which would have operated the franchise.

The vote brings to an end the nearly year-long Mandalay-Braves joint effort to bring affiliated baseball to Wilmington. The group first announced its plans in February, and made it clear then that public funding would be required to complete the deal. Ultimately, that ended up being the road block that killed it.

"We're very disappointed with how it went, both Mandalay and the Atlanta Braves," Mandalay Baseball CEO Art Matin said of the vote. "We thought it was a terrific opportunity for people in the city of Wilmington because we have seen it work so many times throughout minor league baseball. We think it is a lost opportunity."

The Braves and Mandalay have no plans to further pursue the project and any efforts for a new deal would have to come from within the city, Matin said. "There is not a Plan B and we're not trying to draw one up. We're not anticipating trying to resurrect the effort. This was the effort . . .

"We have stated why this (plan) makes sense and people in Wilmington have decided not to support it. We're not going any place. If someone comes up with a great idea, then we'll listen. But there is no fallback plan. There is no Plan B."

Matin understands the reluctance of residents to take on new taxes to help fund a ballpark, but noted that the team owners would have been making a significant investment in it as well. The team had agreed to pay $500,000 annually in rent—which Matin said would have been the most of any team in the Carolina League—and would have covered the costs of the acquisition and relocation of the Lynchburg franchise. But fully covering the costs of financing the ballpark is not an option for Mandalay and the Braves, Matin said.

"That is not something we see as a viable alternative," he said. "We were planning on already making a significant contribution, but completely financing the ballpark is not something that makes sense. That is just not the model of how these things get done."

Matin points to the impact downtown ballparks in Dayton, Ohio, and Durham, N.C., have had on the revitalization of those communities and believes a similar result would have occurred with a riverfront venue in Wilmington. A Charlotte-based developer had announced plans to build a mixed-use residential and retail development next to the stadium.

"I think it would have been great, but people expressed they don't want their taxes increased to fund the public part of the public-private partnership," Matin said.

Public-private partnerships has been the model for recent ballpark development. But a key difference between the projects that are underway and the failed Wilmington plan is that teams have funded a significant portion of the upfront costs. However, each one also required some form of public contribution.

For example, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees (International), which Mandalay Baseball purchased last year, split the cost of a new $53 million venue with state and local municipalities. The Charlotte Knights (International) broke ground on a new ballpark this fall, contributing $38 million themselves to the $54 million project—primarily through a naming rights deal with a bank. But the Knights’ deal includes the city and county contributing a combined $16 million to the deal, not to mention the team paying just $1 annually in rent. Similarly the Potomac Nationals (Carolina) have a proposal in the works for a privately financed ballpark in Northern Virginia that will be enhanced by a $15 million parking deck paid for by the state.

"Clearly the opportunity came knocking at our door at a time when citizens were worried about government spending," Wilmington mayor Bill Saffo told the Wilmington Star News. "They've spoken very clearly. We will not pursue baseball."

In El Paso, on the other hand, voters approved a hotel tax increase to help pay for a new $50 million downtown ballpark nearly as emphatically as Wilmington voters rejected their proposal. About 60 percent of El Paso voters approved a plan to raise the hotel tax by two percentage points, as well as approving two other propositions that called for $473 million in projects including parks and zoo improvements, a new children's museum and a multipurpose arena.

"What we did was change the dynamics of our community," Leonard "Tripper" Goodman, chairman of the El Paso Tomorrow political action committee, told the El Paso Times. "Now we know we can–and will–make change happen."

El Paso hasn't had affiliated minor league baseball since 2004, when a Texas League franchise left town. The new stadium will be home to the Pacific Coast League franchise currently playing in Tucson, which El Paso real estate magnate William Hunt and oil and gas tycoon Paul Foster purchased from former Padres CEO Jeff Moorad earlier this season, and is set to debut in time for the 2014 season. The stadium will be built on the site of El Paso’s city hall, which will be demolished, and city government will move to another downtown location.

The bulk of the ballpark construction will be paid for through the hotel tax, with the remaining costs coming from the team’s lease payments and other revenues.

“I would say that it is a remarkable thing to have a city council so endorse minor league baseball coming into their marketplace that they would support the removal of a city hall,” Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey said in an interview before the election. “It is true that city officials had seen a need to restructure and to somehow solve (the need for replacing city hall) and they thought that the timing happened to work well. I took it more as an endorsement of what minor league baseball stands for and what people envision having that kind of revitalization impact on a downtown area.”