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A new home for the ‘Hogs

by Ogi Overman

In 1996 the Greensboro Sports Commission organized a bus trip to Durham to visit the Durham Bulls’ new baseball stadium, then in its second year of operation. As the 40 or so dignitaries, civic leaders and media members were being given the nickel tour, the front office official acting as tour guide mentioned that there had been a vocal and well-organized opposition movement to prevent the stadium from being built. A sly grin then creased his face as he added, “You can’t find a soul in Durham today who’ll admit they were against it.”

It took Greensboro six more years to come up with a financing plan for its own downtown ballpark, but on Aug. 27, 2002, Action Greensboro announced that it would privately finance a new minor-league stadium. Even though almost no taxpayer dollars were involved, a group of opponents mounted a sky-is-falling campaign that would’ve made Chicken Little proud. A 2004 voter referendum cleared the way, and the new stadium, First Horizon Park, opened for business April 3, 2005. After three years of attendance at more than 400,000 per, each year surpassing the last, it is now commonly accepted that the stadium has been the catalyst for the stunning and ongoing revitalization of downtown Greensboro.

And, funny… you can’t find a soul in Greensboro today who’ll admit they were against it.

Now, Winston-Salem Warthogs owners Billy Prim and Flip Filipowski didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday, but then again it doesn’t take a researcher for the human genome project to know a good thing when they see it. The two brothers-in-law have had a keen eye trained on their neighbors to the east, and as far back as Greensboro’s first year of operation in its new downtown digs, Prim remarked that he wouldn’t mind having a similarly situated ballyard in the Twin City.

But, unlike Greensboro, Prim didn’t have sugar daddy in the Bryan Foundation and knew that if Winston-Salem were to follow Greensboro’s lead he would need to devise a different business model. Granted, he and Filipowski had deep enough pockets – Filipowski sold his software company, Platinum Technology, for $3.5 billion (yes, billion) in 1999, and Prim’s Blue Rhino propane gas tank exchange company was acquired by Ferrellgas in April 2004, for $340 million – but felt that a public-private partnership was necessary to mitigate some of the risks associated with a venture of this magnitude. Moreover, he reasoned, if this were to be a part of a much grander vision, why not pitch a complete downtown revitalization project? Rather than build a ballpark and hope that it spurs development around it, why not ensure it by broadening the scope to include a mixed-use neighborhood of commercial and residential properties within walking distance of the stadium?

Suddenly, the project had ballooned tenfold, from the $20 million range closer to the $200 million neighborhood. This meant that virtually every mover and shaker, every politico, every civic, business, governmental and neighborhood group had to buy into the plan. It meant that every objection by every naysayer had to be overcome. It meant that two baseball-loving brothers-in-law had some work to do.

Prim found a key ally in Winston-Salem mayor Allen Joines early on. He found two more in Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch and athletics director Ron Wellman. He found key business leaders and foundation managers and city councilmen and assorted influence peddlers who were willing to listen objectively, most of whom would come to believe in his vision. And, importantly, he was careful not to neglect the rank-and-file ball fan who by plunking down the cash for the ticket, the hot dog and the souvenir would ultimately determine the success or failure of this venture.

Slowly, meticulously, the Warthogs’ owners put together a plan that would require an investment of $189 million, only $22.6 million of which would be for the ballpark itself. The rest would go toward purchasing a 40-acre tract of land bordered by Peters Creek Parkway and Business 40 and surrounding the venue with retail businesses, offices and residences. In order to move the project forward, Prim and the number crunchers at Sports Menagerie, the entity that owns the Warthogs, came up with the figure of $43 million that they would need from the city and Forsyth County. The deal would be structured so that Sports Menagerie owns and maintains the stadium for 25 years – long enough for the debt to be paid off – and then ownership would revert to the city.

One by one, the various components began coming together. On Jan. 16, 2007, the city council voted 8-0 to approve an incentives package worth $29 million over 25 years toward the project. The county commissioners followed suit, albeit reluctantly, by approving a $12.5 million package on March 12. It passed by a 4-3 vote and was $1.5 million less than Prim had originally asked for. Plus, Wake Forest agreed to buy Ernie Shore Field for $5.5 million, giving the Deacons a better baseball facility that’s also within shouting distance of both Joel Coliseum and BB&T (nee Groves) Stadium. Moreover, the Millennium Fund, a smaller version of Action Greensboro, kicked in $1 million, and a transportation grant was obtained worth $2 million. Prim added the final piece of the puzzle by agreeing to borrow $8.6 million.

Of course, there are a number of contingencies in a deal this complex. For instance, if developers do not invest $50 million toward the mixed-use element of the project by 2017, the county’s obligation is voided and all the tax incentives must be returned. Also, the city plans to recoup part of its investment with a ticket surcharge, estimated at $350,000 annually; the property taxes paid by the club, roughly $250,000 annually; and the sale of Ernie Shore to WFU. Unresolved is the issue of $16.3 million for parking that the city may or may not pay, but that detail is not a deal-breaker. And if it were, it would be a tad late, as the bulldozers have already cleared the run down tract of land bordered by First and Broad streets, Peters Creek Parkway and Business 40, turning it into a hilly pile of dirt waiting to be sculpted into a brick-and-mortar testament to what can happen when dreams merge with money, wherewithal with timing, vision with opportunity.

There are few things more incongruous – not to mention boring – than watching a bunch of important folks making a fashion statement in business suits and hard hats, accessorizing with silver shovels, heaving a pile of dirt and calling it a groundbreaking. Being in the entertainment business, the ownership and management of the Winston-Salem Warthogs recognized this fact and decided to turn a non-event into a major downtown happening. They had set Oct. 30, as the official groundbreaking for their new downtown ballpark, publicized it as a community-wide celebration with free food, fireworks, bands (marching and Dixieland), kiddie rides and amusements, and a Jumbotron-like video screen. But they waited until the morning of the event to release to the media one very special added attraction, an appearance by the greatest un-enhanced home-run hitter who ever lived, Hank Aaron.

“We really weren’t sure until the last minute if he was going to make it or not,” disclosed Ryan Manuel, Warthogs general manager. “He was in Colorado for the World Series and he was on crutches [for what Aaron called a “semi-knee replacement’], but he toughed it out.”

According to Manuel, “Hank and Billy and Flip [owners Prim and Filipowski] have a mutual friend, and that’s how we were able to pull that off. He’s just a great guy.”

Some in the crowd of several thousand speculated that to get a person of Aaron’s stature must have cost an arm and a leg. Not so, said Manuel.

“He said he wouldn’t take any appearance money but he’d appreciate it if we’d give the stipend to his foundation, the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation.”

Joining Aaron on the dais were Mayor Joines, owner Prim and several seated dignitaries (sans hardhats).

Prim claimed that the public-private partnership that coalesced to make this day possible would serve as an example to other cities of what can happen when everyone pulls together. He closed by saying, “We’re going to do our best to build you the finest stadium in America.”

Joines, mixing in quotes from poet Walt Whitman and philosopher Yogi Berra, said, “This is an idea whose time has come. Billy kept swinging and now he’s hit a home run.”

Aaron commended the town on its foresight and vision, likening it to the feeling he remembered when his hometown of Mobile, Ala. built a new stadium in 1997 (that, incidentally bears his name). He ended his brief address by saying, “This is your ballpark. Enjoy it, love it, protect it. And I hope to be back to throw out the first pitch when it’s built.”

Whether he will or won’t remains to be seen. But one fact is assured: As the jubilant overflow crowd streams into the as-yet unnamed stadium on a festive, historic evening in early April 2009, you won’t find a soul in Winston-Salem who’ll admit they were against it.

To comment on this story, e-mail Ogi Overman at ogiman100@yahoo.com.

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