For the dozens of concerned citizens gathered on the convention center lawn, the prospect of a new baseball stadium in downtown Wilmington wasn’t exactly knocking them out of the ballpark. The group gathered to protest on Saturday the 18th to voice their concerns over tax revenue being used to fund the proposed project.
The Wilmington City Council has been in talks regarding a possible baseball stadium with Mandalay Entertainment for well over a year, but just recently announced they were entering serious discussions with the company and the Atlanta Braves franchise. While the idea of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” wafting through the downtown air and having a new place to enjoy America’s national pastime intrigued many among the protest crowd, its reported price tag of over $40 million did not.
“I’ve been a baseball fan and played all my life so I’d love to see a stadium, but not if the taxpayers have to pay for it,” attendee Frank Nichols, decked out in his best New York Yankee gear, said. “If this is such a great idea, where are the private investors?”
Others echoed Nichols’ concerns over footing the bill. “I don’t think we have the money to spend now,” local Mary McLaughlin said. “With the economy the way it is, we just can’t afford it.”
Some of the speakers at the protest said the stadium cost could reach $42 million. “That $42 million is going to cost $393 per person in Wilmington,” opposition leader and former council candidate Joshua Fulton said.
“That includes kids, and kids clearly don’t pay taxes, so it’s going to cost the average taxpayer a whole lot more.”
Attendees read statements penned by state representative Carolyn Justice (R-16) and New Hanover County Commission Chairman Ted Davis, all of whom expressed concerns over the possible project. “It’s never the time to put the cost of the stadium on the backs of the taxpayers,” Davis wrote.
The opposition group started a petition against the stadium and needs nearly 3,000 signatures by registered Wilmington residents in order for it to be effective. More than 100 signatures were picked up during the protest weekend. With enough support the public would have to vote to approve the proposed stadium.
Just as the stadium has its critics, it also has its fair share of equally passionate supporters. “This is a chance for us to invest in ourselves,” Chuck Kuebler, who works for the Optimist Club Of Winter Park, says. “This team could become part of the fabric of our community.” Kuebler says that Wilmington has the perfect demographics and market for a minor-league team to be successful.
Kuebler finds the opposition is focusing on the short-term rather than the long-term economic growth and affordable family-fun the stadium could provide. “Our city could be the jewel of southeastern North Carolina,” he expresses.
“We’ve got a downtown area that’s largely vacant,” councilman Kevin O’Grady adds, “a blank canvas to create another part of the city. Minor league baseball is a magnet for development when it’s located in a downtown area.” O’Grady cites minor league success stories like the Dayton Dragons and Oklahoma City RedHawks as well-managed minor leagues that have benefited their communities. O’Grady also emphasizes that nothing is set it stone with Mandalay Entertainment or the Atlanta Braves at this point; the council is exploring where a possible stadium would be located, what the final cost would be and how much Mandalay and the Braves would pay to be the stadium’s main tenant.
O’Grady also says the reported $40 to $42 million price tag is not entirely accurate. “We really don’t know the exact number yet. We won’t have a definite number until we sit down with an architect and have a final site officially picked out.”
If the stadium was to be placed along the riverfront, a public park would be built, as well as a new greenway to accompany it. “Even those who don’t like baseball can come down and enjoy the green area,” O’Grady says.
The council voted unanimously at last week’s council meeting to spend more than $120,000 to conduct a feasibility study which will explore the benefits of the baseball stadium. It also will help hire outside legal council.
“There’s a whole series of steps over the next 18 months that need to be accomplished,” O’Grady explains. “If we get to the third one and find out it’s not worth it, we won’t go any further, but we owe it to the people of this city to explore this opportunity.”