Minor League Notebook: Wilmington Passes On Ripken Design

One of the first steps to building a new ballpark in Wilmington, N.C., did not come without a bit of controversy.

The Wilmington city council dropped its plan to hire Ripken Design as project manager for the proposed $40 million facility after Mandalay Baseball and the Atlanta Braves—who have formed an ownership group that plans to bring a Carolina League franchise to the city—complained that Ripken could have a conflict of interest. The city council voted last night to instead hire National Sports Service to study the cost, benefits and potential location of a new ballpark.

Ripken Design is part of Ripken Baseball, the company run by Cal Ripken Jr. that also owns or operates three minor league franchises: the Aberdeen IronBirds (New York-Penn), Augusta GreenJackets (South Atlantic) and Charlotte Stone Crabs (Florida State). Mandalay and the Braves were concerned that they could end up competing with Ripken Baseball for the Wilmington market, or other ones, and they were not comfortable sharing information with a competitor.

National Sports Services, based in Topeka, Kan., was second to Ripken Design on the list of 10 groups proposed by city staff. The company is operated by Bill Davidson, who serves as CEO of the Harrisburg Senators (Eastern) and was previously part of the Chattanooga Lookouts (Southern) ownership group. 

The Braves and Mandalay announced last week the formation of a development team that will seek out private financing options to pay for the ballpark and will propose financing plans to the city council in May. The city's exclusive negotiating agreement with the Braves and Mandalay expires in July, though with an option to extend. The group hopes to have the ballpark ready for the 2014 season. In February, Mandalay and the Braves formed a joint ownership group and reached an agreement in principle to purchase the Lynchburg Hillcats and move the Carolina League franchise to Wilmington. The deal is contingent on a new ballpark.

Meanwhile, Ripken Design released a feasibility study for building a new downtown ballpark for the Hagerstown Suns (South Atlantic) as the Maryland city tries to keep its team. Suns owner Bruce Quinn has been looking for alternative locations for the team after the Suns' previous attempts at getting a new ballpark failed, and he had reached an agreement in principle to move to Winchester, Va. Winchester officials then voted against paying for a new ballpark for the team, however. Winchester officials are considering other options for getting a ballpark built.

Ripken Design proposed a $30 million downtown ballpark that would be paid for with public and private financing. Ripken project manager Dan Taylor told a gathering of Hagerstown officials last night that the stadium would pay for itself within 10 years and would spur growth in the city's struggling downtown, according to the (Hagerstown) Herald-Mail. Cook told the gathering that he is considering all options.

“Until this point, we’ve only had one opportunity, and it’s been in Winchester. So it looks like we’re gaining momentum here in Hagerstown," Cook said. "The (state) comptroller came out. The mayor’s doing a nice job of keeping this moving forward. The city and county are both involved now, and Ripken’s report was what everybody was waiting for."

In other news:

• The sale of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees (International) to SWB Yankees LLC, a corporation formed by Mandalay Baseball and the New York Yankees, still has not been completed, which means renovations to PNC Field have not begun. The team is playing its entire schedule on the road this season, with the intention of clearing the way for renovation to be completed in time for Opening Day 2013. The previous April 1 deadline for demolition to begin has come and gone, however. The proceeds of the $14.6 million sale of the team will be used for the $40 million ballpark project.

Meanwhile, the Yankees made their "home" debut in Rochester.

• A high school student died while working as a seasonal employee for the Hagerstown Suns. Mitchell Ronald Akers sustained a head injury when he fell from a four-wheel vehicle while working at Municipal Stadium on April 10. He had been riding on top of garbage bags in the back of the vehicle before he fell out when the driver made a left-hand turn in the stadium parking lot. The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health department is investigating the incident.

• The Astros are shopping for a new spring training home but have shown no interest in the old Dodgertown complex in Vero Beach, Fla. The facility is now operated by Minor League Baseball as a destination sports complex.