The stage was set. The actors took their places. Scripts were polished; hair and makeup perfect. Ex-Atlanta Braves GM Bobby Cox was situated in the audience expecting a well-executed production. The cast was the Wilmington City Council, and the play was entitled, "Building a Baseball Stadium with Other People's Money - Even though We Can't Afford it". The location was the city council chambers; ironically a floor directly above the historical Thalian Hall main stage in downtown Wilmington.
On Tuesday night, the Wilmington City Council met to act out the pre-planned script of unanimously approving the Memorandum of Understanding with Mandalay Entertainment and the Atlanta Braves to explore the idea of Wilmington taxpayers fully funding a baseball stadium, while the aforementioned entities collect the proceeds. Sounds like a real win-win... if you're not a Wilmington taxpayer.
Developer Chuck Schoninger, who owns the land where the proposed stadium is expected to be constructed, is quite cozy with local political leaders, as this marketing video demonstrates. The developer operates several outfits with the same purpose have made his intentions clear that he wants lots of public money for the project, in order for "it to work".
Schoninger created an international website promoting the EB-5 program as a way to try and attract Chinese investment into their expansive project as well; in addition to another website promoting his downtown development plans, including the baseball stadium, from a downtown perspective.
If this plan goes through, it will be a handsome payday for Schoninger, who has plans for a marina, hotel, and multi-use development complex; of which the stadium would be a center feature. Not a bad public-private partnership from Schoninger's perspective, who will benefit from the taxpayers investment in the stadium, the purchase of his land to build it, all without any investment of his own in the stadium project.
The combined efforts of the private developer, as well as the undying promised support of Mayor Bill Saffo and other local leaders have resulted in real paydirt from their perspective. The Atlanta Braves, Mandalay, and Bobby Cox are all interested in planting a Braves farm team here, with the Wilmington taxpayer being forced to absorb the costs, and take all the risk for their "investment". Schoninger will be rewarded for his persistence, since it appears the Wilmington City Council will be paying him a premium for their land with taxpayer dollars.
Schoninger said Mandalay officials expressed “serious” interest in bringing a minor league baseball team affiliated with the Atlanta Braves to Wilmington — a nearly $12 to $15 million investment for staff and players alone. He said he would sell the parcel of land needed for the stadium to the city and county for an undisclosed price, but none of the money currently being raised would be allocated for the stadium’s construction. LINKLocal leaders have willingly ignored study after study that clearly demonstrates that publicly funded stadiums are an economic liability for communities - not a boon.
Also, just as recently as late 2011, Mayor Bill Saffo stated in his campaign for re-election, a promise to voters that he would not support a property tax increase to pay for the baseball stadium. However, every discussion as of late involves Saffo talking about the distinct possibility of such an increase, given that the math doesn't work any other way, and the city is already tens of millions of dollars in debt, due to a plethora of other failed economic projects, such as the convention center.
It’s unclear how the city plans to pay for the stadium’s development; however, Saffo hinted at increased property taxes for Wilmington residents and businesses — reneging on a 2011 campaign promise where he told supporters he would not support a property tax increase to finance the stadium’s construction.
“We’re going to take a look at all of our options,” Saffo said during an afternoon press conference. “I’m candy-coating it, there might be a property tax increase.” LINKTuesday night's meeting ran more like a well-rehearsed performance, than an official meeting of city business. Council sat in their distinguished perches given the management from the Braves and Mandalay what they came to see. For good measure, Councilwoman Laura Padgett even ad-libbed a line about how she was "concerned" about taxpayers footing the entire bill for Mandaly's benefit, but then of course, voted for the measure anyway - the pre-determined and collectively agreed upon outcome of the meeting.
But a lot has to be decided, particularly how the city would pay for a potentially $35-40 million, 6,000-seat stadium and where it would be located. There's been a lot of talk about the riverfront but no commitment.
Councilwoman Laura Padgett had concerns about taxpayers footing the bill for the stadium.The lone Republican, Neil Anderson, who also campaigned on the idea that he would be cautious and wary of such a raw deal for taxpayers, was obedient to the cause, and went along with the majority, as he was expected to do.
"I'm going to vote for this to move forward because I think we'd be foolish to have an opportunity to like this and not look into it," she said, but added: "I think it's wrong for city taxpayers to pay an increased tax rate on their own to pay for this facility." LINK
As part of the charade that this agreement is somehow going to be good for taxpayers and citizens, the local media and the city point to a study that was obviously paid for by the city, that states
An economic impact study done by Brailsford & Dunlavey found a baseball team and stadium in Wilmington could bring $62 million in initial impact in the first year and $9.8 million annually. LINKBased on those numbers, it would seem that by the term "initial impact", they mean "taxpayer investment" - or "additional city debt obligations"; which would most certainly result in massive tax increases being levied at many different levels within the city in order to finance this initiative. As has always been a time-honored tradition in Wilmington government, is the city doesn't contract a study, or hire a firm to do an analysis, without a pre-determined outcome that echoes their position, or that supposedly supports their theory or analysis; given that many other real-world studies that analyze existing stadiums, paint a very negative economic picture, and demonstrate dire economic consequences on the community that is forced to pay for them.
Wilmington Downtown Inc. leader John Hinnant, referred to the Durham Bulls in his assessment of the popularity and success of minor league baseball teams. One must take note however, that the Bulls are the most (only?) well-known minor league baseball team in the nation, given the prominence of the box-office hit told on the silver screen starring Kevin Costner, entitled Bull Durham.
Perhaps if Hollywood takes note of Wilmington's team, draws up a script, dusts off Kevin Costner, and shoots a movie highlighting our little venture into minor league baseball, we'll have a chance at economic success. It would be a fitting addition to this saga, given all of the acting and dramatic performances already in play.