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NSS: New Wilmington ballpark would generate $172 million in new spending

Carolina LeagueA new Wilmington (N.C.) ballpark would create $172 million in direct spending and generate 3,952 new full- and part-time jobs, but opponents will find it to be less than persuasive when it comes to funding options.

The report from National Sports Services, released today in draft version, has been long awaited by proposed of a new ballpark for an Atlanta Braves farm team — the relocating Lynchburg Hillcats (High Class A; Carolina League), referred to in the report as the Wilmington Braves — to be managed by Mandalay Baseball Properties. And while the report, whose authors included 360 Architecture, CSL and BKP Consulting, may be a little rosy in term of impact — we really don’t believe a facility will have a $248-million impact in the city — we do agree with the central premise: that investing in a new ballpark will indeed lead to a financial payout for the city. But that probably won’t matter the low-tax advocates who dominate the public discussion.

Speaking of investment: NSS is recommending the city pay $26 million toward a new 6,000-seat ballpark costing between $36-42 million for construction, land and infrastructure. The sweet spot is 59 percent public funding; that’s been the national average for the last 20 or so years, says NSS. Mandalay’s rent of $400,000 a year — down significantly from earlier estimates, by the way — would generate $15.7 million, and a private developer would be asked to kick in $5.2 million.

The most fascinating part of the study: funding sources for a new ballpark. Wilmington is a very conservative city, so property taxes are among the lowest in the state. And while a survey indicated public support for a small property-tax hike to pay for a new ballpark, we’re not sure that would pass muster with voters. Instead, NSS laid out a few other sources of revenue that would have minimal impact on the locals, including a 3 percentage-point increase in hotel taxes, which would require state approval. This would generate $2.3 million annually, covering $31 million of debt service on a new ballpark. 

In the end, we’re not thinking this report will end up swaying public opinion very much. The conservative foes of a new ballpark aren’t going to be persuaded by some fancy-talking out-of-town consultants telling them to raise property taxes to benefit rich out-of-town baseball-team owners. The tourism groups in Wilmington aren’t going to go down quietly while city officials mull raising tax rates to among the highest in the state. And you can bet The Big Talker is already talking up the part of the report showing that Mandalay Baseball Properties would be making an estimated 21 percent profit margin in the first year of ballpark operation. With opponents of public financing succeeding in putting the ballpark on a fall referendum, there’s already momentum on their side — and this report won’t counter it. It’s not quite dead on arrival, but the pulse is faint.

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