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Keys, Frederick on verge of 10-year Harry Grove Stadium lease

Frederick KeysIf there’s been a worse procedure for a city to negotiate a ballpark lease than what’s been going on with the City of Frederick and the Frederick Keys (High Class A; Carolina League), we’ve not seen it. But there’s finally some light at the end of the tunnel, and a 10-year lease is expected to be approved this Thursday.

The process began well enough, with the city issuing an RFP for the Harry Grove Stadium lease and two entities — the Keys and a group seeking to place an independent Atlantic League team in the city — responding. After the city deemed the Keys to be the early winner after a points-based evaluation, negotiations on the specifics of the lease ensued. And that’s where things broke down.

After weeks of city aldermen second-guessing lease negotiations between the city and the Keys front office and an attempt by at least two aldermen to set some new parameters to what would be covered under a lease, things came to a head during a work session last week where aldermen fought it out. Jack Lavoie, who certainly submitted a credible bid for the ballpark lease on behalf of an Atlantic League group, objected to the proceedings, says changes agreed to by the Keys, such as picking up the cost of utilities (a change from the original RFP response), “smacks of collusion and ‘back-room’ dealing.” To be fair to all, it was clear the RFP would serve as the basis of future negotiations and was never considered by the city to be the final word on a lease. We’re not seen any evidence the Keys ownership has done anything but respond directly to requests from the city in this whole process.

Lavoie’s larger objection, and one that has merit, was that the RFP process was designed to draw a better bid from the Keys, not to draw the best tenant to the facility. That possibility, however, should have been evident from Day One of these deliberations.

Is the lease perfect? No. And even though the Keys will pay much more under the new lease than under past leases, it’s still a very reasonable lease by Class A standards: we know lots of Class A owners who would love a baseline rent of $100,000 per season. And there’s some debate about whether the city will actually lose money operating the ballpark. Alderman Karen Young says it will and also argues the city would turn a profit with the Atlantic League as a tenant, while city budget director Katie Barkdoll says the team will indeed turn a profit with the Keys.

This exposes one big error made by the Atlantic League group: the fact that their baseline proposal was so close to what was proposed by the Keys ending setting the value of the lease in terms favorable to the Keys. When you come for the throne, you need to kill the king: you can’t promise a slightly lower baseline rent and then try to make it up outside the core line items of the lease. And with the city saying upfront that affiliated ball would have an advantage in the evaluation, that pretty much clinched things for the Keys.

We don’t expect the Keys to stay out of the news once the lease is signed, though. While an original option to sell the team ended with no action, we’ve heard recently from several owners who were recently approached once again by brokers about the availability of the team. We’re sure the team will deny it in another venue, but the fact is these team owners a) have no reason to lie about things and b) bear no ill will against the Keys ownership.

In any case, the city is not letting the pursuit of perfection push aside the need to get a deal done. After the work session, it was clear a majority of aldermen wanted to move ahead with the lease and approve it at a Sept. 15 meeting. This brings resolution for the Carolina League (a 2012 schedule is on hold until the Frederick situation is resolved), the Keys front office, and the baseball fans in Kinston, widely seen in baseball circles as a potential destination for the Keys if the city had gone the Atlantic League route.

RELATED STORIES: Keys lease raising debate in Frederick; Frederick reopens ballpark lease negotiations; Keys, Frederick have draft lease; aldermen want more information; Frederick committee recommends Keys retain ballpark lease; Two bids submitted for Frederick lease; Keys: We want to stay in Frederick; Frederick: Affiliated team to have advantage in ballpark bidding; Frederick to put ballpark lease to bid; Keys on market; Ballpark Visit: Harry Grove Stadium / Frederick Keys


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