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Atlantic League Could Land in New Gastonia Ballpark

FUSE Gastonia rendering

Professional independent baseball could supplant summer-collegiate league action in Gastonia, NC, as city officials are strongly considering a bid to field an Atlantic League team at an upcoming ballpark. 

Discussions have been unfolding about a new ballpark in downtown Gastonia, which is planned to serve as the anchor of the larger Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment (FUSE) District redevelopment initiative. It had been seen as a forgone conclusion that the Gastonia Grizzlies (summer collegiate; Coastal Plain League)–who currently play at the city’s Sims Legion Park–would be the ballpark’s main tenant, but city officials said earlier this year that that was not a formality, and that the door could be open to prospective suitors in professional baseball.

It now appears that an Atlantic League team could occupy the ballpark. City officials are favoring a potential partnership with a group led by Frank Boulton and Atlantic League president Rick White, which would result in an Atlantic League expansion team using the facility once it opens in 2021. Nothing is final at this point, but representatives of the bid will make a formal presentation to the full Gastonia City Council later this month and could begin negotiations with the city shortly thereafter.

Should the plans move forward, the prospective team’s ownership would also manage the ballpark. The Atlantic League bid apparently had a few factors working in its favor, including 70-game home schedule and assurances of maintaining a slate that includes plenty of non-baseball events. More from the Gaston Gazette:

City Council members who sit on Gastonia’s Facilities Management Committee heard pitches on Monday from three different groups bidding to manage and play baseball in the FUSE stadium. Councilmen Dave Kirlin, David Humphries and Todd Pierceall unanimously endorsed White and Boulton’s proposal and invited them to give a presentation to the full City Council on Tuesday, Aug. 20.

After that, the two sides will likely begin cobbling out a formal agreement, which will include nailing down specific financial details regarding the stadium lease and management costs.

“The direction given to staff is to continue working toward establishing a ‘memorandum of understanding’ that would then provide framework for a management services agreement in the future,” said City Manager Michael Peoples.

Council members said the Atlantic League bid was favored for several reasons, including the potential behind having upward of 70 home baseball games played here each season. But another key was his assurance of filling the FUSE complex with a variety of festivals, concerts, athletic events, food and beverage events, faith-based gatherings and more to make it successful throughout the year.

Grizzlies ownership–led by National Sports Services–had sought to secure an agreement for the new ballpark, joining a field of suitors that included the Atlantic League bid and the independent United Shore Professional Baseball League. While the Grizzlies are set to return to Sims Legion Park next season under a lease that runs through 2020 and have not announced plans for 2021, the prospect of an Atlantic League team at a new downtown ballpark raises plenty of questions about the franchise’s long-term future. From the Gaston Gazette:

National Sports Services President Matt Perry bought the majority stake in the Grizzlies last year from former Gastonia residents Jesse and Emily Cole. Perry could not be reached for comment this week. But he said earlier this year that the Grizzlies acquisition was based entirely on the expectation of moving into and managing a new stadium for Gastonia.

“With anything less than that, there’s absolutely no way we can meet our financial goals for our investors,” he said in January.

Perry previously said the city securing a deal with another baseball franchise would “effectively be kicking us out the door.” He said he and his colleagues would not be a part of any relationship that involved the Grizzlies sharing the stadium with any other professional baseball franchise. Scheduling, sponsorships, marketing and other details would be too difficult to work out, he said.

For the Atlantic League, a Gastonia team would help bolster the circuit’s Southeast footprint. The High Point Rockers debuted at the brand-new BB&T Point earlier this season, and currently the only club in the eight-team circuit that is based in North Carolina.

Rendering courtesy Pendulum Studio.

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