Metro and the Nashville Sounds are not using the formula other cities have used to get new multi-million-dollar Triple A ballparks built, leaving the future of baseball in Music City in doubt.
In towns from Columbus, Ohio to Reno, Nev., a willingness of local government, team owners and private developers to work together was the critical ingredient to getting new ballparks built.
Here the two key sides have resorted to bickering.
In Reno, it only took team owner Stuart Katzoff and the city about a year to get their estimated $45 million stadium deal in place. It will take just over another year to get it built.
Lehigh County, Pa. followed a similar timeline, as owners purchased the team in 2006 and started playing in brand-new Coca-Cola Park this year.
So why are other towns able to have new ballparks up and running in two years, while Nashville has had a new ballpark issue on the agenda since 2002? The answer lies beyond the finger-pointing going on between the Sounds and the mayor’s office.
“For us it was a public-private partnership that had community support,” said Don Brown, the Franklin County Administrator in Columbus, Ohio, about securing funding for its new ballpark, which will be complete next year.
What comes first, the chicken or the egg?
When the Sounds pushed forward a piece of state legislation last week that would allow the team to collect sales tax generated by a new ballpark development, Mayor Karl Dean’s office lashed out at the move.
Metro capital hill lobbyist Eddie Davidson called the Sounds’ pushing the legislation through a Senate subcommittee “an act of bad faith,” and added that talks between the team and Metro were called off because of it.
Dean’s office is of the opinion that the Sounds need to present a comprehensive plan that includes a site, design plans, private financing and, if necessary, public funding options.
Sounds General Manager Glenn Yaeger counters that the team can’t secure sufficient private funding until it identifies all possible revenue streams, including the proposed sales tax rebate.
It’s a technical debate that even finance experts such as Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling admit is quite complicated.
The reality is that examples exist supporting both arguments.
In Lehigh County, for instance, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell approved a $12 million grant on the front end of the deal to help bring baseball there. The desire for baseball in Lehigh County, coupled with Rendell’s grant, helped spur private developers to purchase the Ottawa Links and move the team to Allentown.
Like Reno, the Lehigh County deal included the introduction of new tourist taxes, usually car rental taxes or hotel taxes, to help pay back the bonds on the deal.
But Reno and Lehigh County were both getting brand-new ballparks and new teams, whereas Greer Stadium has been in Nashville for 31 years. And with the Nashville Predators’ Sommet Center lease terms just being sweetened, and the deal the Titans used to fund what’s now LP Field viewed as too-sweet for the taste of many, the Sounds’ deal is facing more scrutiny than ballpark deals in those towns.
“I really believe the deals the Predators and Titans got for their stadiums has hurt,” Yaeger said.
Willingness to invest
Reno may be the shining beacon of new stadium deals, because the developer and team owner Stuart Katzoff was willing to put between $75 million-$100 million of his own money into the deal.
Katzoff paid $15 million to buy the Tucson Sidewinders, $12 million in land acquisition and is on the hook for whatever the ballpark costs over $33 million. He’s also committed private money toward extensive development surrounding the park.
The new Reno team will be supported by a car rental tax and tax increment financing similar to what the Sounds were hoping to use on their old stadium deal that fell to pieces last year.
“The only public financing came from the rental car tax,” Katzoff said. “It’s actually paid for by tourists that come into the county.
“The county and the city came together and said, ‘We think this is a great use and will help a blighted area in downtown and really rejuvenate the area as has happened in Oklahoma City, Durham, N.C., Memphis… the list goes on and on.”
Whether the list of cities that benefit from a new downtown ballpark ever includes Nashville is very much in doubt. Many observers believe the Sounds’ current piece of legislation at the state level could be voted down in a state House subcommittee next week. Whether it does or not, the chances it ever presses on without Dean’s support is slim.
Many around Metro are still stinging that the previous downtown ballpark deal fell through, with the Sounds and Struever Brothers left laying blame at each other’s feet. Struever was the developer for the ballpark and the mixed retail and residential development surrounding it.
“Whether or not it was the Sounds’ fault, or Struever’s fault really doesn’t matter, because the Sounds are the ones who brought them to the deal,” said one Metro official familiar with the deal.
Possible new owner in the shadows
Rumors continue floating around town that new ownership groups are courting Sounds owner Al Gordon, seeking to buy the team. Yaeger acknowledged parties have expressed interest since last year’s deal fell through, thinking they can get the team on the cheap.
One rumor linking the team to the leader of the new Predators ownership group, David Freeman, still lingers.
But some around the Sounds have suggested that while the team’s preference is still a ballpark on the riverfront, perhaps moving the team to a doughnut county will become the best option.
For his part, Dean is a dedicated baseball fan who insists he wants to see the sport continue in Nashville. And even with the mayor’s office intensifying the rhetoric last week, Yaeger has still maintained that Nashville is the team’s top option.
“We want and need a new ballpark,” Yaeger said. “And our preference is still downtown.”
And for however valid Dean and others’ lingering frustration from the last stadium deal falling through, other local governments have given much more for new ballparks than the Sounds are asking. Gwinnett County, Ga. issued $33 million in revenue bonds in addition to $12 million up front to help move the Richmond Braves to town and build them a new ballpark.
Considering the precedent of suburban areas like Allentown and Gwinnett giving so much to acquire a team, and considering the existing possibility the Sounds could pursue a stadium in Williamson, Rutherford or Wilson counties, the potential of the team leaving town is very real.
“Things have kind of stalled out between the mayor and the Sounds. It’s definitely something myself and everyone in Council is aware of,” Metro Councilman Sean McGuire said. “I think we need to have baseball in Nashville, it’s just a question of whether it’s the Sounds or another team.”