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Birmingham approves new downtown ballpark, but second vote needed

Birmingham BaronsThe Birmingham City Council gave preliminary approval to a proposed downtown ballpark funded by a hike in hotel taxes, but because the vote was not unanimous, the measure must again be approved by the council next week.

The plan calls for the city to raise the hotel tax rate by 3.5 percentage points, with the proceeds going to fund a new ballpark, which could cost as much as $58 million when construction and land-acquisition costs are tallied. Though there’s no agreement in place yet, the city is targeting the Birmingham Barons (Class AA; Southern League) as a tenant.

The vote was 7-1, with Council President Roderick Royal voting against the project. Because the vote was not unanimous on first reading, it must be approved on a second vote by a simple majority. His objections: the Barons are not yet signed as a tenant, and the plans for a Negro Leagues/Southern League museum at the site were not explained to his satisfaction. Still, with an overwhelming majority already suporting the project, it’s hard to think it will go down in a week, especially when only five votes are needed.

If approved, the new ballpark could theoretically be completed for the 2012 season, though 2013 is more likely at this point. That can change.

The new ballpark is certainly a boon to the Barons, who didn’t go out shopping for a new facility. It’s also a short-term challenge, as the team’s lease at Regions Park is up at the end of the year, and Hoover officials have made noise about not approving a short-term lease with the team while the ballpark is built. The existing lease calls for a five-year option for extension, and if the Barons leave before the end of the extension, they must pay $200,000 for each year the ballpark is empty.

Art Clarkson, the former GM of the Barons now heading operations for the IFL’s Green Bay Blizzard, says he’s interested in bringing in independent baseball to Regions Park if the Barons leave. We’re not so sure that will happen. First, there’s not an independent league operating in the region; the American Association would come closest, with a team in Pensacola. We did some asking around, and no one in the AA has heard about the prospects of a Birmingham team. Second, it’s not a strong business plan to take on the Barons in a new downtown ballpark: independent baseball tends to avoid competing directly with an affiliated team, and we can’t see the greater Birmingham area support two teams.

RELATED STORIES: New Birmingham ballpark could create $3.8 billion in economic activity: study; Birmingham City Council to vote on new ballpark next week; Birmingham City Council: We support ballpark tax, but we want team first; 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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