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Wilmington to ask voters to approve new-ballpark bonding

Carolina LeagueWith the collapse of a public-private partnership backing a new Wilmington (N.C.) ballpark, voters will be asked directly this fall whether to back bonds on the project.

Developer Flywheel/Trask has withdrawn from the project, which calls for Mandalay Baseball Properties to run a new ballpark for a relocating Atlanta Braves farm team, the Lynchburg Hillcats (High Class A; Carolina League). (Yes, the new team would be the Wilmington Braves.) So instead of a developer borrowing money for a ballpark, the City Council decided last night to move ahead with a plan that calls for the city to issue bonds for ballpark construction. The exact amount for bonding needs to be determined, and as part of this decision the city will negotiate directly with Mandalay over the cost and scope of the new-ballpark project, using a report from National Sports Services as a guideline. But don’t be surprised if the ballpark plan is scaled back: a price tag of $42 million (which includes every amenity and was dubbed a Triple-A ballpark by one councilmember) may end up going down considerably. 

Public-private partnerships are hard to pull off. In this case, we’re not entirely sure what Flywheel/Trask brought to the project past a desire to wet their beak: the city and Mandalay would still be obligated to pay off bonds issued for ballpark construction and it wasn’t clear that Flywheel/Trask was doing anything but borrowing money backed by others. There never was a firm commitment from Flywheel/Trask to divert any other proceeds from associated development toward the ballpark funding — the prime reason why you enter into a private-public partnership — so it’s no surprise they withdrew from the proceedings.

While direct public funding of the new ballpark makes for a cleaner transaction, it also makes for a more politically fraught transaction. Wilmington is home to many, many low-tax advocates who aren’t afraid to spend a lot of money on advertising and marketing to make their points known: Americans for Prosperity, the national low-tax group headed by the infamous Koch brothers, has already dropped $20,000 on anti-public-funding advertising. A poll of local residents by National Sports Services indicates taxpayer support for a new ballpark, but whether that translates into support in the polling booth is another matter entirely.

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