The Mobile City Council delayed a vote Tuesday on whether to transfer $464,649.57 out of city park funding to improve playing facilities at the 17-year-old Hank Aaron Stadium, home of the Southern League’s Mobile BayBears. The money would replace field lights, upgrade the audio system and install field rail padding, according to a statement released by the administration Sunday.
“Baseball has an important role in Mobile, past and present,” Stimpson said in the statement. “Our city has produced more Hall of Famers than any city, except New York or Chicago. I remain committed to keeping America’s pastime a part of our family-friendly community for years to come.
“For our future to be as strong as our past, we need to make sure our little league fields to Hank Aaron Stadium are safe, playable and accessible for all to enjoy,” he added.
Councilwoman Bess Rich asked for the vote to be held over for one week and Council President Gina Gregory assigned it to the Finance Committee to be discussed further. Some councilors had an issue with rent the BayBears owed to the city.
Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said the team hasn’t been current on its rent since 2013. Cooper did not specify an amount owed to the city. City spokesman George Talbot confirmed Tuesday that the team had owed the city close to $900,000, during the Sam Jones administration.
During a council pre-conference meeting, Rich said that debt was cleared when the team agreed to make repairs to the roof of the stadium, during the previous administration. Rich asked if the city could possibly broker a similar deal with the organization for these improvements.
City Attorney Ricardo Woods said the city would bring a new contract before the council for a vote at a later time. He said the appropriation and issues with the contract are not connected.
Councilors Joel Daves and Fred Richardson supported moving forward with the appropriation.
“It seems to me that the stadium belongs to us and it’s in bad shape,” Richardson said. “Right now, we need to fix it.”
Morgan said the team can wait a week for the council to make a decision, but if the issue is held over again they would be running into a time crunch, with the installation of the new lighting. He said the team wants to begin installing the new lighting after the conclusion of the March 6-8 series between University of Alabama and Lipscomb. He said that would be five weeks before opening day and installation could take two to three weeks, weather permitting.
Hank Aaron Stadium will become the Southern League’s oldest stadium this summer, once a new venue is constructed in Biloxi, Morgan said.
The proposed improvements are among many requested by the BayBears’ major league affiliate Arizona Diamondbacks.
In a letter to BayBears General Manager Chris Morgan dated Sept. 23, Diamondbacks’ Director of Player Development Mike Bell suggested the Double A farm team work with the city to find funding for improvements to the drainage system and dugout flooring.
“It is our intention to establish and maintain a truly symbiotic relationship with each of our minor league affiliates and while we have consistently provided the BayBears with top-tier talent, our efforts have not been reciprocated with improvements in the facility.” Bell wrote. “We have made a concerted effort to deliver championship-caliber baseball to the city of Mobile, evidenced by five-consecutive playoff appearances and back-to-back Southern League titles in 2011 and 2012.”
In the letter, Bell argued that the “antiquated” drainage system, especially in the outfield, has led to “lost games” that would’ve otherwise been played.
“This inadequacy has resulted in lost development opportunities — both in the form of games and pregame workouts,” he wrote. “Most importantly, though, we are concerned about the safety of our players. Their safety is paramount and the current drainage system is unacceptable.”
Morgan said Tuesday the drainage issue did cost the baseball team some games last season. He said 10 percent of the team’s home games were called due to rainouts. He compared that to Pensacola’s Southern League team, which saw no rainouts last year.
In a separate appropriation, the administration plans to tackle the drainage system next year, according to the statement. Additionally, plans to resurface the field are set for 2016. The existing playing surface be will repurposed in a city park, Stimson suggested.
In the letter, Bell thanked the BayBears and the city for improvements made to the “clubhouse area’ prior to the start of the 2014 season, but added that future cooperation would be needed.
Last week, the Diamondbacks announced that Robby Hammock will be the next manager for the BayBears. Hammock started his coaching career in 2012. He had played for the Diamondbacks from 2003 through 2011, hitting .254 with 30 doubles and 12 home runs.
The BayBears’ season begins on the road April 9, with a five-game series against the Birmingham Barons. Mobile returns to The Hank April 15 to face its new Gulf Coast rival, the Biloxi Shuckers, formerly the Huntsville Stars.
In other business, the council reversed course and voted 6-1 to approve the vacation of a portion of Montclaire Way at its intersection with Airmont Drive. The vacation, which was initially opposed at a meeting in December, allows the Airmont Property Owners Association to close that portion of the street, giving the subdivision only one way in and out.
Richardson was the lone dissenting vote.
Members of the group said they were concerned about an increase in crime and traffic in and out of the neighborhood. Residents, who opposed the move, questioned the crime statistics the group gave the council and told councilors the move would inconvenience. They also said the move would increase traffic problems at intersections near the neighborhood.
Even though the original request was denied, Gregory said it was put back on the agenda, after a member of the prevailing side — a councilor who initially opposed it — asked for it to be placed back on the agenda.
The council also approved a contract with Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood to begin phase one of a long-term, comprehensive plan for the city. The first phase of the contract will cost the city about $50,000. The other $24,000 needed for phase one is coming from the Community Foundation of South Alabama.
The first phase will consist of partial development of the plan, including community meetings with stakeholders. The cost of both phases will be $150,000.