The Mobile City Council on Tuesday, Dec. 3 delayed a vote to determine the future use of Hank Aaron Stadium after hearing two proposals the day before.
The council delayed for a week its approval to allow the Mobile Sports and Entertainment Group (MSEG) to take over the stadium lease from BallCorps LLC, which moved the Double A Mobile BayBears to Madison to become the Trash Pandas.
The council is left with two decisions, either approve the lease assignment for MSEG or terminate the lease and allow a group led by Biloxi Shuckers co-owner Tim Bennett to bring minor league baseball back to the Port City.
During a short presentation to a council ad-hoc committee on Monday, Dec. 2, Ari Rosenbaum, former BayBears assistant general manager and president of MSEG, told councilors his group wanted to fill the stadium with events year-round, ranging from high school and college baseball to concerts.
Rosenbaum said he started working at the stadium as an 18-year-old intern for the BayBears and has done everything from clean toilets to work as a liaison to the team’s Major League Baseball (MLB) affiliates. His wedding ring has baseball seams on it because he met his wife at the stadium.
“My purpose is to take care of Hank Aaron Stadium,” he said. “I was offered a job in Madison and I turned it down. I’ve been offered jobs in Minor League Baseball and turned them down solely because I will not leave Hank Aaron Stadium behind.”
Rosenbaum told councilors his group has already invested $1.5 million to take ownership of the two holiday-themed light shows and keep them in Mobile.
Murphy High School is slated to play its baseball games at Hank Aaron Stadium if the deal is approved, Rosenbaum said. In addition, MSEG will host high school and college tournaments with plans to hold a scout league to allow representatives from MLB teams look at local talent.
For its use of the stadium, MSEG will pay $100,000 per year in quarterly installments of $25,000 and while the initial contract said this money would be put aside for the future possible demolition of the stadium, that language has been removed because it had caused confusion.
This language particularly troubled Councilman Fred Richardson, who said he cared about preserving Hank Aaron’s legacy.
“My concern is the legacy of Hank Aaron in Mobile,” he said. “If anyone is going to knock the stadium down, they are knocking down the legacy of Hank Aaron. Whoever is trying to knock the stadium down, they’re going to knock me out.”
The language referring to demolition of the stadium was added in reference to the city’s ground lease of the land where the stadium sits. The family of Joe Little III owns the land and had a stipulation in the contract that if professional baseball at or above the Double A level wasn’t played at the stadium for two years, or if it wasn’t used for other public events, the city would be forced to tear it down and give the land back to the owners of McGowin Park.
MSEG has agreed to pay utilities and maintenance costs at the stadium, Paul Wesch, the city’s executive director of finance, said.
Bennett’s group plans to bring an Atlantic League baseball team to Mobile to start the 2021 season, Kenyen Brown, an attorney for Bennett, told councilors during his presentation.
Like with MSEG, Bennett’s group would pay $100,000 for rent, but wouldn’t start paying until the end of the 2021 season. In the meantime, the city could keep collecting rent from BallCorps and terminate its lease with the team at the end of next year. At that point, Brown said, the city could claim default because the team left and could collect liquidated damages. Bennett would then supplement those damages with a payment of more than $100,000.
There was some legal disagreement over whether the city would be able to claim default earlier than 2022. City attorney Ricardo Woods argued BallCorps has a two-year window in which the city cannot claim default. Council attorney Wanda Cochran told councilors she didn’t interpret the contract the same way Woods did, but would accept an official, written opinion from him on the matter. Wesch added the poorly written 1996 contract doesn’t allow the city to terminate the contract. He said a typo allows only BallCorps to terminate the contract.
In addition to rent payments, Brown said Bennett’s group is offering the city 20 percent of all revenue from outfield advertising sales and an escrow account for capital improvements would be funded by a $2 fee added to tickets.
While Bennett’s group is the only one seeking to immediately bring pro baseball back to Mobile, MSEG and Rosenbaum said that is a future plan for them, but the timeline is not yet defined.
Wesch also questioned if an Atlantic League team would satisfy the stipulation in the land lease of a Double A or higher form of professional baseball. Brown has said he believed it would. The Little family has verbally supported MSEG, but, while “gracious,” was unwilling to write a letter of support for the group, Wesch said.
Bennett, who was present at the committee meeting, said he applauds MSEG for what they are trying to do, but wants professional baseball to return to Mobile. He argued both plans could be incorporated.
Rosenbaum said his group doesn’t want the stadium to be torn down and if the future holds that professional baseball will be played again in Mobile, he wants it to be at Hank Aaron Stadium.
“I will lay in front of the bulldozers if they come,” he said.
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