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“Free” land not so free in Wilmington

Carolina LeagueSo how much are free road improvements worth in Wilmington (N.C.)? About 35 acres of land, apparently, as the offer of “free” land for a new ballpark looks worse with each passing minute.

As you’ll recall, the Cameron familyin a really weird and twisted way — made an offer of 35 acres of land for a new ballpark in Wilmington, albeit with some conditions: the land couldn’t be turned over to a private developer, and any access improvements to the site must be matched with free improvements to the rest of the land controlled the Camerons along Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. Along the way the family took some shots at the multimillionaire minor-league players and the greed of team owners, which are rather severe arguments considering the Atlanta Braves want to move the Lynchburg Hillcats (High Class A; Carolina League) to town in a relatively modest deal.

The conditions, apparently, are proving to be quite the hurdle for Wilmington officials who were initially thrilled with the offer of free land (a situation that catapulted the site to the front of the line, we were repeatedly told) but then found out about the conditions. And the prime condition — that improvements must be made to more than just the ballpark site — may be too much for city officials to stomach. Right now there’s no money in any road budget to make improvements in the area and none planned in the long-term plan that runs through 2020.

Not that it will matter much anyway, because as it’s currently configured the ballpark funding plan is pretty much DOA. Opponents have apparently gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on whether or not city funding will be part of the mix, but we’re guessing the city walks away from a deal long before a referendum is scheduled: it would be political suicide to tout a ballpark sure to go down to defeat in an election. Now, the signature drive may be premature, as the only talk about any city funding has been vague, as the city, Mandalay Baseball Properties and the Atlanta Braves have not presented any firm funding plan, awaiting the results of a feasibility study from National Sports Services. But the opponents of any sort of public funding for a ballpark are working hard to make sure any proposal is discredited before it’s made: the right-wing Americans for Prosperity have spent $20,000 on an ad campaign opposing public money, and the local conservative radio station has made opposition to any ballpark funding a crusade. (Watch the ad here. It’s an amazing misrepresentation of what’s been proposed so far, beginning with the whopper that the city wants to spend $40 million on a ballpark.)

There’s opposition to virtually every new ballpark project these days. It’s par for the course and a legitimate area of discussion. But the level of vehemence and the transformation of a purely local endeavor into a national issue — the ballpark is the symbol of runaway government spending, with tens of thousands of dollars coming from the notorious Koch Brothers — is truly amazing. We’re guessing Mandalay Baseball Properties and the Braves didn’t quite appreciate the politics of Wilmington before entering into this ballpark quest, but in their defense no one could predict what weirdness laid in wait.

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