The now 18-year-old contract between the Mobile BayBears and the city of Mobile has been amended several times over its life to include rent waivers, improvements to Hank Aaron Stadium and other changes to the complex.
The first amendment to the original 21-year contract came in September 1996, just five months after it was signed. That change increased the city’s obligation for the stadium’s construction from $7.2 million to $7.7 million and adjusted its cost from $8 million to $9 million, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said. It also reduced the number of seats from 8,000 to 6,000 and increased the club’s financial burden from $800,000 to $1.3 million.
Interestingly enough, Cooper said, the September 1996 adjustment also removed the provision to build an ice skating rink on the property, noting the mayor’s current proposal for a seasonal, $132,000 ice skating rink in Cooper Riverside Park.
“A skating rink was supposed to be out at Hank Aaron Stadium,” Cooper said, defending the idea. “To the naysayers out there, all we are doing is responding to the public need.”
Even with various rent waivers, including one in September 2013 for $50,000, the BayBears still owe the city $150,000 in back rent, Cooper said.
“As part of the FY 2014 budget amendments made by the City Council in October 2013, $50,000 for 2013 rent was waived,” Cooper explained. “So, as of Sept. 1, the outstanding principal amount of $150,000 includes unpaid rent of $100,000 for year 2014, and $50,000 for first two quarters of 2015, and it will increase from there.”
After similar nonpayment in 2011, the city reconciled back rent in exchange for the club’s contribution toward a roofing repair project at the stadium. The club also agreed to profit sharing arrangements with the city.
“They agreed to fix the roof for the forgiveness of debt in terms of $817,736.40,” Colby said of the contract’s fourth amendment. “Rent was shifted to — the annual rent was moved to $100,000 and [Mobile] received a percentage of gross receipts above $1.5 million, and those percentages change based upon increased receipts. The rent was then due in quarterly payments of $25,000.”
The fourth change also extended the contract for the BayBears’ use of the stadium to March 31, 2022, Cooper said.
The contract’s second amendment was also significant, as it resulted in a reduction of rent paid by the club in the latter years of the agreement. The new terms required the BayBears to pay about $291,000 per year in the first 10 years of the contract, an obligation reduced to $273,000 in years 11 through 20.
The contract’s third amendment, signed in 2008, further reduced the annual rent to $210,000. It also shifted the maintenance cost for capital repairs to the city.
Cooper said the city sent the club a demand letter for the back rent on Aug. 18, but is willing to negotiate. He acknowledged maintenance issues in the stadium were one reason the club had not paid rent. Cooper referenced letters the city received last year from both the BayBears’ parent club, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Minor League Baseball.
As a result, the City Council approved nearly $500,000 for multiple repairs to the stadium before the start of the baseball season. Cooper said the city has since sought approval to fix drainage issues and replace the stadium’s playing surface in the near future. The BayBears led the league in rainouts a season ago with seven, Cooper and BayBears General Manager Chris Morgan said.
“We recognize we’ve got to do our part, but we also expect them to do their part and we’re not going to get into this chicken-and-egg, tug-of-war of who has to do what first,” Cooper said. “We have to be a responsible steward for the taxpayers and where there is someone not paying their rent, we must demand it. At the same time, where we are obligated to upkeep a field we must keep it up, and that’s kind of where we are right now.”
Morgan, who joined the organization at the tail end of the 2014 season, didn’t comment much on the recent amendments or back rent, simply saying he hoped in the long term both sides could get to a point where they are “comfortable with what’s agreed upon.”
In 2013, the city awarded the BayBears $100,000 to fix the scoreboard as part of a performance contract. The next year, the city awarded another contract in the amount of $159,000 to fix the locker rooms, concourse, restrooms and seating.
Meanwhile, the BayBears’ average attendance this season was down to about 1,553 per game, Morgan said, a reduction of 100 from 2014. But if there is a bright spot in those numbers, he noted, it’s that the reduction has slowed compared to the 27 percent drop in attendance from 2013, when it was as high as 2,100 per game, to 2014.
Morgan believes his first-year goal of improving the fan experience has been successful.
“We heard that it wasn’t a good experience [before],” Morgan said. “My hope is in the long term to get people to come back.”
He said the media exposure this year was “as good as it has been in a decade” and he hopes it will continue and have more of an impact in 2016.
Morgan said the fans aren’t the problem. He said 16 years with the Senior Bowl and the past success of the BayBears has taught him that. For instance, the Senior Bowl sold out 15 of 16 years he was there and the BayBears used to lead the Southern League in attendance with an average of 4,700 tickets sold per game. As recently as five years ago, Morgan said the club had about 3,000 fans per game.
“The ‘Mobile doesn’t support anything’ argument is garbage,” Morgan said. “The support is there.”