A budget shortfall will delay opening of a new Southern League Biloxi ballpark for at least 35 games and perhaps up to 55, throwing next year's schedule into disarray.
The $36 million project was already behind schedule when bids for MGM Park -- sans any site work -- came in about $5 million over the $29.13 million allocated for facility construction. With the city working with W.G. Yates & Sons on some serious value engineering, a final construction plan was formulated late last week.
But there's still a huge issue: the new budget -- which stretches the construction schedule out to a full year -- delays the opening of the ballpark back to July 1 at the earliest. With this plan, a penalty clause kicks in because the ballpark won't be ready for the first 35 home games, giving the owners of the Huntsville Stars (Class AA; Southern League) $10,000 per missed game: $350,000. But there's also the chance more games could be missed, so if construction stretches out to the end of August, the team could miss 55 home games -- and receive $550,000 from Biloxi.
The 2015 Southern League schedule has been released, but obviously something will need to change. One option is to play the beginning of the season at Joe Davis Stadium as the Huntsville Stars and then move operations to Biloxi when the ballpark is ready. This is a terrible choice: moving operations in the middle of a season is extremely difficult and will probably send Buck Rogers, current Stars GM and future Biloxi GM, to an early grave. The team could play most or all of the season on the road, but we're guessing the Milwaukee Brewers, Huntsville's parent, would raise holy hell over that prospect. (It's been done, as our friend Mark McCarter reports: most recently the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders played the 2012 season out of various "home" venues while PNC Field was renovated, and the Gary-SouthShore RailCats played their inagural season on the road because of ballpark construction delays. The RailRiders did have a home ballpark of sorts -- most of the "home" games were played in Rochester -- and with parent New York Yankees a co-owner of the team, they had a vested interest in completing ballpark renovations.) A third choice is to tear up the schedule and shift home games to the end of the season, but with the specific opening date of the ballpark still very much in doubt, this approach is still fraught with danger. From GulfLive.com:
Majority owner Ken Young said it was too early to know exactly what the new construction schedule will mean for the team. The Stars do have another year remaining on their lease with the City of Huntsville, so remaining there for the 2015 season has been suggested.
"Obviously, that's a good question," Young told The Mississippi Press Friday afternoon, "one I don't have an answer for right now, primarily because I remain hopeful the stadium will be done faster than that."
League sources have told Al.com, however, that there is no contingency schedule for the team remaining in Huntsville for 2015.
Another possibility would be swapping home dates with other Southern League teams to mitigate the number of home dates missed while the Biloxi stadium is completed.
"Certainly all of the teams in the league have said they would work with us and be accommodating," Young said, "but there's a lot to that puzzle and there are no commitments."
Probably the best choice: Move past a potential 2015 opening and declare 2016 as the official opening for the ballpark, keeping the team in Huntsville for 2015. You could keep the current schedule intact and merely exchange Huntsville for Biloxi. That takes pressure off everyone -- the city, the Biloxi sales force, the league -- to work under uncertainty. It also gives Biloxi baseball fans a proper chance to welcome the team at the beginning of a season.
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