Home / Mobile / Mobile council backs local group’s plans for Hank Aaron Stadium – AL.com

Mobile council backs local group’s plans for Hank Aaron Stadium – AL.com

What was once an uncertain situation turned into a routine play Tuesday for the Mobile City Council after it unanimously agreed on an operational agreement for Hank Aaron Stadium.

The council’s approval allows Mobile Sports & Entertainment Group (MSEG) to assume Arizona-based BallCorps’ remaining two years on its lease to operate the 22-year-old stadium near Interstate 65 and I-10.

BallCorps, the owners of the Mobile BayBears, are relocating the team to Madison before the start of the 2020 season. The team is being rebranded as the Rocket City Trash Pandas.

“We thought we’d be probably right there with the vote, maybe 5-2 vote,” said John Hilliard, vice-president of sales and marketing and a co-founder of MSEG. “A 7-0 vote (with) everyone in agreement, it was the right thing to do for the city and we are all very, very happy.”

Stadium plans

The vote ended several weeks of public discussion about the short- and long-term future of the abandoned stadium. MSEG was in competition with about six other proposals for the stadium, including a plan pitched by the co-owner of the Biloxi Shuckers to bring a professional baseball team to Hank Aaron Stadium by 2021.

As recent as last week’s council meeting, some council members said they were hesitant toward supporting the MSEG plan over concerns about the group’s initial proposal. Among them was Councilman Fred Richardson, who said he was worried about the contract’s initial language that referenced the demolition of the stadium.

The language was removed from the MSEG contract, and Richardson said he was satisfied.

“I told them upfront that I would not vote for any contract that was interested in demolishing the stadium,” he said. “It took them a while but they took the clause out. The demolition clause was removed. And I was also concerned about upkeep … but it’s in the contract that they will perform the upkeep on the building. I was satisfied when we got those clauses fixed.”

Indeed, the stadium expenses will be the responsibility of MSEG for the remainder of the contract, expiring on March 31, 2022. That means any major upgrades, utility expenses and rent payments of around $100,000 per year will be the responsibility of MSEG.

In return, MSEG plans to utilize the stadium for high school and collegiate baseball games. The entire complex, which includes a massive parking lot, will be used for public entertainment purposes such as concerts, light shows, car shows and cooking competitions.

Baseball will be played almost immediately within Hank Aaron Stadium. The Murphy high school baseball team plans to play its home games there starting in February.

“We are going to take these two years and do the best that we can at the Hank and we’ll look at our options and come up with another plan moving forward with the city,” said Hilliard. “Right now, the full attention is on the next two years.”

MSEG’s proposal was the one backed by Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration in recent weeks, primarily because it covered the stadium’s bills. Also, the MSEG plan adheres to the parameters of a 99-year land lease agreement the city entered into with McGowin Properties LLC.

That lease, written in 1996, requires Hank Aaron Stadium serve as the home ballpark for a Class AA-affiliated ball club or better. If such a team doesn’t play its home games at the stadium for two years, the land lease could be terminated and the city would have to tear down the stadium at taxpayers’ expense. Such demolition projects can cost a city around $1 million or more.

Stimpson’s chief of staff Paul Wesch, however, said his interpretation of the land lease is that “public entertainment” could replace a Class AA-affiliated baseball team. For instance, MSEG recently purchased two popular light shows displayed within the stadium’s parking lot: Thriller Nights of Lights during the Halloween season and Christmas Nights of Lights.

“What the ground lease says is that if professional baseball goes away, then it must be replaced with public entertainment within two years,” Wesch said. “What the (original) owners were after was activity. When the ground lease was entered into, the (area) was vacant swamp land. While baseball was on our minds at the time, what the owners were after was activity so they could market the property.”

Alternatives

Wesch said he was concerned with a competing proposal pitched by Kusche Sports Group (KSG) backed by Shuckers co-owner Timothy Bennett. He was proposing to bring a professional baseball team from the Atlantic League to Mobile by 2021. KSG was also willing to make a commitment to the stadium for 20 years.

Tim Bennett

Tim Bennett, co-owner of the Biloxi Shuckers minor league baseball team, speaks to the media following a Mobile City Council committee discussion on the future of Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile, Ala., on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

Wesch said the KSG plan would run afoul of the land lease terms because the baseball team wasn’t Class AA-affiliated or higher, and that public entertainment wasn’t part of their proposal.

“If you look at when they were proposing to start, it was two years down the road anyway,” said Council President Levon Manzie.

KSG and other potential suitors for the stadium could be reconsidered as stadium operators after 2022. Wesch said that MSEG will get a chance to negotiate an extension with the city upon the completion of the current contract.

MSEG officials have said they also want to be part of luring professional baseball back to Mobile, but Wesch said it will be difficult.

Major League Baseball (MLB) is targeting 42 minor league teams for elimination in order to streamline player development, improve facilities and ease travel burdens and improve working conditions for prospects who are most likely to reach the big leagues.

“Today, there are 160 single A, double A, or triple A-affiliated teams,” said Wesch. “Major League Baseball announced 42 will go away. There are a lot of stadiums in decent markets that just won’t have Major League-affiliated baseball available.”

Two teams slated for contraction are members of the Class AA-affiliated Southern League that includes the Trash Pandas, Shuckers, Pensacola Blue Wahoos, Birmingham Barons and Montgomery Biscuits.

In Chattanooga, the Lookouts are part of the contraction plan that could leave their 19-year-old stadium without a major tenant. In Jackson, the Generals are also part of the contraction plan.

The rise of abandoned minor league ballparks leaves cities scrambling to find potential reuses. There have been some success stories such as in Indianapolis, where an abandoned minor league stadium was repurposed into an apartment complex. In Huntsville, city leaders are looking to repurpose abandoned Joe Davis Stadium into a high school football stadium.

Wesch said one example that piqued city interests was in Savannah, Ga., home of the Savannah Bananas of the Coastal Plain League. The team sells out almost all of its games and has generated a reputation for zany antics and promotions that include dancing players and playing games while wearing kilts.

“It’s (a lot) like the Harlem Globetrotters,” said Wesch, referring to the popular traveling basketball team that combines entertainment with sport. “It’s entertainment baseball compared to competitive baseball. They are sold out all next season and are doing very, very well.”

‘Emotionally attached’

There is no indication that such a team is in the works for Hank Aaron Stadium. MSEG is, right now, looking to offer the stadium as a home field for all the baseball teams affiliated with the Mobile County Public School System.

Hilliard also said that MSEG will work on reopening the Hank Aaron childhood home and museum that was moved in 2010, to be located next to the stadium. Much of the artifacts inside the home were removed by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and relocated to Cooperstown, N.Y., following the end of the 2019 season in September.

“We’ll get with Mr. Aaron and see if there are more items that he would be able to donate to us,” said Hilliard. “We’ll be in contact with the Hall of Fame and see if we can get some of those items back. We want kids to know about the Hank Aaron legacy.”

Hilliard also said a group of former Mobile-based Major League Baseball players like Jake Peavy, Turner Ward and Jon Lieber will also be active in hosting events and promoting the stadium.

Ward, who managed the BayBears in 2011 and 12 and led them to two consecutive Southern League championships, spoke in support of MSEG during the council meeting. He said himself, Lieber and Peavy are “in full support” of what MSEG wants to do with the stadium.

“I’m emotionally attached to it,” he said. “It’s important to me.”


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