DASH committee commits an error

by Jim Longworth

A few weeks ago, Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines appeared on my “Triad Today” television program. During the interview, I admitted to having once been skeptical about the city’s investment in the new Dash baseball stadium, and praised the mayor for his vision. Turns out, I ate crow too soon.

Last week the so-called Citizens Baseball Stadium Review Committee met to review Dash owner Billy Prim’s financial reports. But they met behind closed doors, then refused to make public any of the data, stating that it was proprietary. More on that weak excuse in a moment.

You will recall that once upon a time, the Dash stadium was pitched as a private project, owned by Billy Prim and his partner Flip Filipowski. Private or not, the pair asked the city to kick in about $13 million, and council complied. But Flip soon found himself in the middle of a nasty divorce, and pulled out of the project. Meanwhile, stadium costs doubled from the original estimate, and Prim asked the city to kick in another $15 million, bringing total taxpayer investment to a whopping $28 million. Winston-Salem then took ownership of the stadium, and Prim’s Brookstown Development Partners company agreed to lease the park from the city.

Given the level of taxpayer involvement, Joines knew that some kind of oversight was needed, thus the creation of the Citizens Review Committee. But the purpose of the Committee was to monitor expenditures and protect taxpayer investment, not cover up financial data and advocate for Prim. And that brings us back to the justification for withholding financial information from the public.

According to City Manager Lee Garrity, Prim’s financials are protected under North Carolina’s Public Records Law. Garrity told the Winston-Salem Journal,”If the city were to choose to violate the law and release this information, the city and all of its citizens would be liable for any financial damages caused.” City attorney Angela Carmon added,

“Releasing information about the stadium’s operations and generation of revenue could result in irreparable financial and competitive harm”. But exactly what competitive harm is Brookstown afraid of? The Greensboro Grasshoppers stealing signs from the Dash catcher?

When pressed for more information by the Journal’s Scott Sexton, Carmon issued what my friend Scott considered to be a veiled threat. She warned that if the Journal “dares to litigate [for disclosure of documents] the full force of Brookstown Development would be behind the city”. That’s great. First the city manager warned us lowly taxpayers to butt out, or else pick up the tab for legal fees, then the city attorney upped the ante by trying to frighten a journalist into dropping his request for public information. It makes you wonder just how well our investment is paying off, and how safe it is going forward.

Committee Chairman Eric Pryor tried to smooth things over by assuring citizens that “the numbers were a little better than I expected.” But if that’s the case, then why not just release them to the public who financed the deal?

Mayor Joines is now in a tough spot. Either he demands that the financial data be made public, or he caves in to Prim and lets the committee keep the information under wraps. Doing the former may result in a lawsuit by Brookstown. Doing the latter raises concerns that someone is hiding something. Joines is a fair and competent leader; Prim is a fine gentleman who loves baseball; and the committee is comprised of unselfish people who volunteered for a thankless job. Surely they can all come up with a solution to disclose financial information without threatening journalists and taxpayers with costly lawsuits. In the meantime, Carmon, Garrity, Prim and the committee need to remember that public/private partnerships are a two-way street. Unfortunately for now, the public side of that road is closed.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).