Tourists, city say minor league baseball here to stay

By Beckett Bathanti – sbathant@unca.edu – Editor In Chief

The Asheville Tourists and the city of Asheville remain committed to the Tourists staying in Asheville after the terms of the lease expire in 2016.

“The goal is to have the best facility possible and to see what the wants and needs are,” said Mark Halstead, program supervisor for the city of Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Halstead now oversees the project and will be in charge of the renegotiation process in 2016.

Under the terms of the original lease, signed into effect in 2005, the Tourists were to pay the city $425,000 through 2015 and the city was to be in charge of providing all utilities except telephone service, in addition to repairs and stadium upkeep. The city maintained the right to use McCormick Field for college and high school baseball games as well as community events when it did not impact the Tourists’ use of the facility.

Two years after purchasing the Tourists in 2010, DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball renegotiated the terms of the lease and now pay the city a dollar a year, a figure Halstead admits looks crazy on paper. However, further examination reveals that the Tourists took on all utility and maintenance responsibility, which makes such a cheap lease financially feasible for the city.

“Often our expenses exceeded what they were paying in the lease, so that is why it made sense for us to change the lease arrangement so that they take care of all the repairs,” Halstead said. “From the city’s standpoint, a financial standpoint, this is more beneficial.”

Another reason for restructuring the lease was to create more freedom for the Tourists to make quick, day-to-day changes to the facility that the swift pace of the baseball season demands. When the city was in charge of those duties, the nature of bureaucracy and the approvals necessary and the constraints of the city’s allotted budget often posed problems for quick fixes.

“It is a good process because it is checks and balances, but it is not always expedient if they want something repaired before the game when they come back into town next week,” Halstead said.

Under the new lease agreement, the Tourists not only maintain the facility, but also have the power to accept or reject proposals from outside groups who want to use McCormick Field, a move Halstead said made sense considering the Tourists are the primary users of the facility.

Prior to 2012, “We were often the middle man,” Halstead said.

Brian DeWine, president of the Asheville Tourists, finds the new terms to be reasonable and said the agreement reached was one that worked best for both sides.

Having recently moved his family to Asheville, DeWine said he intends to keep minor league baseball in Asheville.

“We are very much committed to Asheville. I live here year-round and we are very involved in the community,” DeWine said.

Local freelance baseball writer Bill Ballew said the Tourists are in the midst of a period of stability.

“It has been very stable from an ownership standpoint and in terms of community,” he said.

DeWine said none of the factors that might cause a minor league baseball team to leave town are present in Asheville.

“It might be lack of fan interest , an aging facility that is not up to Minor League Baseball standards, or just simply greener grass on the other side,” DeWine said.

The Huntsville Stars, a AA team, recently announced they will move to Biloxi in 2015 after failed attempts to update their stadium.

Although no specific plans are in place to renovate McCormick Field, proposed development in the south slope district, on the edge of which McCormick Field sits, could eventually impact the ballpark.

Reached via email, Economic Development Director Sam Powers cited sentimental and economic reasons for the protection and renovation of McCormick Field.

“Because McCormick Field has such an endearing sense of place in our community, and has such authentic stories that add to the fabric of our community, there is widespread sentiment to preserve, protect and enhance McCormick field.  The tourism industry is currently looking to increase the community’s ability to draw new visitors and lengthen the stay of visitors once they arrive in the community,” he said.

Powers described McCormick Field as an important location to connect downtown, the south slope and Biltmore Village.

Although the city has made no commitments regarding plans for major changes to McCormick Field, Powers said the community expressed interest in the project.

“People in the community extolled the virtues of renovations to McCormick field to meet tourism destination development goals,” Powers said.

Both the Tourists and the city say they want minor league baseball to stay in Asheville and reaching terms on a new lease agreement probably will not hinge on new work being done to McCormick Field.

“That is at a very early stage, we are talking about what can be done from an economic development standpoint. The Tourists have been involved in that communication because that could very well affect them, but that is just getting the ball rolling on long-term plans,” Halstead said.

The current lease officially ends Dec. 31, 2016, and a new lease will go into effect Jan. 1, 2017. The Tourists and the city will begin negotiations in early 2016.

2012’s lease amendment simplified the process.

“We won’t have to go back to the first step. It will be more about tweaking,” Halstead said.

DeWine foresees the Tourists maintaining their place in the community for a long time.

“We plan to do the lease in 2016 and then another one after that and another one after that,” he said.

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