Will New Ballparks Follow New Owners In Las Vegas, Augusta?

The Las Vegas 51s and Augusta GreenJackets each have new owners. Both teams hope to say the same about ballparks soon.

Officials made both sales official on Monday. Las Vegas (Pacific Coast) goes from Stevens Baseball Group to the Summerlin Las Vegas Baseball Club LLC--a joint venture of Howard Hughes Corp. and Play Ball Owners Group, which includes investors Steve Mack, Chris Kaempfer and Bart Wear. Augusta (South Atlantic) moves from Ripken Baseball to Agon Sports & Entertainment, an investment group headed by Chris Schoen (formerly of Hardball Capital) and Jeff Eiseman, a longtime Ripken Baseball executive.

Both teams have plans in the works for new ballparks as part of larger residential/retail development projects, though a shovel has yet to hit the dirt at either.

At a press conference at Cashman Field, longtime 51s president Don Logan told reporters that the new owners' plan to build a ballpark in the suburb of Summerlin has a better shot at becoming reality than the many failed projects of past team suitors--including Chris Milam, whose downtown stadium complex was nixed by city leaders and whose subsequent project in Henderson is now the subject of a lawsuit.

"It is a new beginning for the franchise," said Logan, according to the Las Vegas Sun. "Having people like Steve (Mack) and the local investors, and a company like Howard Hughes, it is unprecedented in this franchise's history. It sets the stage for some big things going forward."

The new beginning could take place at a ballpark that would serve as the centerpiece of an entertainment village on the outskirts of Las Vegas and would be built on land donated by the Howard Hughes Corp., which developed the communities in Summerlin. The project would include restaurants, shops and all sorts of non-baseball options to entertain fans before and after games.

"We are going to have 140 stores and 17 restaurants just in the retail side, and that's not even the amenities at the stadium," said Mack, a Las Vegas resident and former pawnbroker at SuperPawn.

Not detailed in the plans is the one element that has doomed previous ballpark plans in Las Vegas and other communities hoping to either keep or attract minor league teams. That, of course, would be money--specifically, who is going to provide it to pay for the ballpark. According to the Sun, the group's plan is to pay for the $60 million project through a partnership among the city of Las Vegas, Clark County and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

For what it's worth, the multi-municipality model has not been a success in Richmond, Va., where efforts to build a consensus have stymied the Eastern League franchise’s plans to build a much-needed replacement for The Diamond. The Braves pulled their Triple-A franchise from Richmond after a decade of failed negotiations following the 2008 season, and the Double-A Flying Squirrels have expressed similar frustrations since debuting in 2010. And while using public money to pay for ballparks was a recipe for success during the building boom of the early 2000s, teams have found communities far less willing to foot the bill in recessionary times.

"The big hurdle will be talking with three municipalities and getting them on board," Mack said. "We have to quantify the benefits for everybody. When we have a chance to articulate and explain--we are going to be completely transparent--people are going to see there are so many benefits for the city, the county and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. It makes complete sense."

A new ballpark would certainly benefit the team and be a significant upgrade on 30-year-old Cashman Field, which lacks many of the amenities found at newer ballparks, including indoor batting cages, luxury suites and spacious clubhouses. The new owners hope to unveil the new ballpark in time for the 2015 season, the Sun reported.

Agon Sports and Entertainment reached an agreement to purchase the GreenJackets from Ripken Baseball in December and the deal completed the approval process on Monday. It returns Eiseman to the cause of finding a replacement for Lake Olmstead Stadium in downtown Augusta, a role he filled for six years after Ripken Baseball purchased the team in 2005.

The new owners' hopes of building a ballpark as part of a $165 million mixed-use development along the Savannah River in North Augusta hit a road block when the Aiken (S.C.) city council voted down a measure in March to defer tax revenue to the city to help pay for the project. North Augusta city officials met with Aiken officials last night to try and build support for a tax incremental financing mechanism and agreed to hold a public hearing on May 21, according to the Aiken Standard.