Braves Plan To Buy Lynchburg Franchise, Move To Wilmington

Sale contingent on construction of a new ballpark

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As the first Opening Day in 33 years without a Kinston, N.C., franchise in the Carolina League approaches, another longtime league member may also be on the way out.

The Lynchburg Hillcats, a franchise that been a part of the Carolina League since 1966, could be moving to Wilmington, N.C., after the team's owners agreed in principle to sell to the Atlanta Braves. The soonest that the move could take place would be for the 2014 season.

The Braves, who own all of their minor league affiliates except at the high Class A level, want to complete their collection with a team in a new ballpark in Wilmington, as part of a joint ownership with Mandalay Baseball Properties. The deal is not done, and Carolina League president John Hopkins said, "There are many more mountains to climb."

The biggest mountain is the construction of the new ballpark. The sale is contingent on the new park being built, and at this point the city of Wilmington doesn't know where the park would be or how it would be paid for.

The deal also requires the Braves to find a new tenant for the ballpark in Lynchburg, though it could be a franchise in a different league. None of that has been determined either, Lynchburg general manager Paul Sunwall said.

Mandalay Baseball CEO Art Matin said he expects some form of a public/private partnership to finance the new ballpark.

"Without public financing, it won't happen," he said. "So we need a significant piece of financing to come from the city."

Wilmington and Mandalay gave themselves six months to figure that out, after the Wilmington city council unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding with the potential new owners at their meeting on Tuesday.

Wilmington mayor Bill Saffo previously said that a new ballpark will come at a price for residents. And while there was support at the city council meeting from residents donning Braves jerseys, opponents of the project are circulating a petition to require a referendum on using public money for a ballpark. Also on the to-do list is finding a location for the ballpark and determining the cost.

"I am optimistic we can work this through," said Matin, who was joined at the city council meeting by Braves executive vice president of business operations Mike Plant and former Braves manager Bobby Cox. "I think Wilmington as a market has terrific potential to be a strong minor league market.

"It has a strong business clientele, a lot of interest in baseball at the youth level, and even though there have been a couple unsuccessful attempts (at minor league baseball) in the past, I think that was more business operations than the market. I think the Braves agree with us and that is why we are pursuing it together."

If all the pieces come together in Wilmington, then Lynchburg will bid farewell to the Carolina League—but not to professional baseball. Sunwall said that selling the Hillcats is contingent upon the Braves helping the city find a replacement team.

"It would not be a Carolina League team in here . . . we would have a lesser league and possibly not as many games, but it would still be a positive for the city of Lynchburg," Sunwall said.

The Hillcats are community-owned by the 16-member Lynchburg Baseball Corp., a group that includes many of the original owners who have guided the franchise for little profit while spurning previous purchase offers that would have taken the team out of town. The Lynchburg metro area has a population of 246,036, according to the 2010 census, compared to 362,315 for Wilmington.

However, the team's longtime chairman Calvin Falwell, who long championed the cause to bring and keep professional baseball in Lynchburg, died last year. Sunwall said many of the owners felt this was the right time to sell the team, and that this is the right offer.

"We're going to have another team in another league. That is part of the equation," said Sunwall, who has also been part of the ownership group since 1981. "We have had other offers over the years, but it was never with a commitment to put another team in here to replace us . . . We have been in business here since 1966. We have 16 owners, and as one recently said, 'We're all getting a little bit long in the tooth.' "

The city financed a $6.5 million renovation of Lynchburg City Stadium in 2003 that upgraded the 72-year-old stadium into a more modern facility that includes 14 luxury suites and club seating. Part of the renovation agreement with the city stipulated that the team would pay off any remaining debt on the ballpark if it was sold, and Sunwall confirmed that the deal with the Braves will make the city whole.

Though the Carolina League will leave if the Wilmington project goes through, Sunwall said is he confident professional minor league baseball will not leave the city. Other leagues that make sense geographically for Lynchburg are the South Atlantic League or the Appalachian League.

"It's too early to go that far yet," Sunwall said. "As soon as Wilmington is ready, that will be the first thing we are going to be asking. The final details have not been finalized and probably won't be until we know what happens in Wilmington."