Local Opposition Could Hinder Biloxi Ballpark Project

Don't book your trip to Biloxi for Opening Day next year just yet.

The proposed project to build a $36 million ballpark just off the Gulf of Mexico in downtown Biloxi, Miss., has hit a bit of bump in the road just two weeks after it was announced by a group of local officials that included Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.  A protest led by members of a concerned citizens group and the NAACP on Wednesday called for a referendum on the $21 million city-issued bond to help build the ballpark that would host a Southern League franchise—potentially as soon as next season. The groups would need to gather 1,500 signatures on a petition by June 18 in order to get the issue on a ballot this fall—a scenario ballpark backers would like to avoid, and one that is similar to what ultimately doomed a planned baseball stadium in Wilmington, N.C., last fall.

A lack of communication is what led to the protests, says Tim Bennett, the president of Jackson-based Overtime Sports. Bennett  has spent the better part of nine years trying to bring a team to Biloxi after leading the movement that brought a Southern League franchise to Pearl, Miss., in 2005. He notes that plans call for the city to be repaid for the bulk of its $21 million investment. Another $15 million would 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 stadium will be built on a plot of land the city will lease from neighboring MGM Resorts International rent-free for 20 years.

To help clear the air and bring the two sides together, Bennett has organized a pro baseball rally this afternoon, in which he plans to explain the history of baseball on the Gulf Coast—the Tigers played their spring training games in Biloxi in 1919 and the Washington Senators did the same from 1930-35—and detail the financial benefits of bringing a stadium to downtown Biloxi.

"Baseball is more of a uniter than a divider," Bennett said. "I've had people tell me that this is making a dream a reality."

That dream is not necessarily dependent on getting the ballpark built in time for next season, but getting shovels in the ground as soon as possible certainly improves the odds of the project getting completed. Five of the seven Biloxi city council members who approved the ballpark funding will be replaced by new members in July, and while Bennett says "the project is strong enough to stand on its own," there is no incentive to give a new group of legislators the opportunity to reconsider the previous board's decision. In addition the two returning members on Wednesday proposed a new site for the ballpark, located in one of the members’ district.

"We're locked in on our location," Bennett said. "Like I said before, it's one of the best in the country, second to none. If I believe that, why would I want to move to a different one?"

Local opposition to a city-funded ballpark is what led to the unraveling of the plan to move the Braves' Carolina League affiliate from Lynchburg to a new $37 million ballpark in downtown Wilmington, which would have been funded primarily through an increase in property taxes. The team and the stadium was to be run by a joint venture between the Braves and Mandalay Baseball—former manager Bobby Cox was a visible supporter on hand for an initial proposal and a rally supporting the project after local activists began to oppose the city's involvement.

Those activists acquired the needed signatures on a petition to bring a voter referendum, and the measure was soundly defeated last November with about 70 percent of voters opposing it. There are no plans in the works to revisit the project.

"We’re not anticipating trying to resurrect the effort. This was the effort," Mandalay CEO Art Matin said at the time. “We have stated why this (plan) makes sense and people in Wilmington have decided not to support it.”

On the same day voters rejected a ballpark in Wilmington, residents of El Paso, Texas, voted in favor of a hotel tax increase to help pay for a $50 million ballpark to host the Padres' Triple-A Pacific Coast League franchise. Groundbreaking for the stadium happened earlier this month and construction is scheduled to be completed in time for Opening Day next season.

Bennett has said that he does not expect the project to face similar opposition as what happened in Wilmington, and some of the protestors on Wednesday admitted to be in favor of a ballpark but wanted more opportunity to have a say in how the city spent its money.

Bennett said if the project does not hit any roadblocks, an announcement regarding which team would be purchased and relocated to Biloxi could come in the next 30 days.