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Birmingham City Council: We support ballpark tax, but we want team first

Rickwood Field

The Birmingham City Council today passed a resolution expressing support for a doubling of the city’s hotel tax rate to pay for a new downtown ballpark — but in the process added a crucial condition to the deal.

The condition: that the hotel tax wouldn’t kick in and construction wouldn’t begin on the ballpark unless an anchor tenant is signed. In reality, that means only thing: the City Council wants to see a deal signed with the Birmingham Barons (Class AA; Southern League) before the tax is collected and the ballpark built.

The plan would hike the city’s hotel rate from 3 percent to 6.5 percent, generating $40 million for a new ballpark in the downtown Railroad Park area as well as a new hotel.

That’s not a deal-breaker by any stretch; though the Barons have been unwilling to publicly commit toward the project and maintaining a hands-off posture, we’ve been told there have been positive signals from team ownership in back-channel communications. The condition by the City Council essentially flushes out the Barons. It also ensures that the ballpark is built without the Barons; there has also been talk by some at CIty Hall that the Barons aren’t needed for the project, that the project would do just find with University of Alabama-Birmingham as a tenant. That’s nonsense, of course: it makes no sense without the Barons.

Today’s vote was not binding: it was an early resolution of support Mayor William Bell says he needs to begin negotiations. A formal vote is expected soon, perhaps sometime this week; the next step is the release of a report from a consultant indicating whether the community and downtown can support a new ballpark. We’re guessing the consultant will be pretty enthusiastic — if the Barons are on board.

The timing is good for the Barons: the lease at Regions Park ends this fall, and the team has an option for a five-year renewal. If a new ballpark comes to be, the team can negotiate a short-term lease for the Hoover ballpark.

One issue that’s not been contentious: the diversion of Rickwood Field funding toward the new ballpark. The Frields of Rickwood, the group that’s restored Rickwood Field to its present condition, has come out in favor of the new downtown ballpark.

RELATED STORIES: Birmingham OKs initial ballpark funding plan; Birmingham to discuss downtown ballpark Monday; Downtown ballpark study underway in Birmingham; New ballpark pitched for downtown Birmingham

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