Dash stadium delays must end

by Jim Longworth

In October 2007, the public was invited to a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Winston- Salem baseball stadium. It was replete with fanfare and celebrities. The Winston-Salem State University marching band performed, fireworks were ignited and hall of fame slugger Henry Aaron was the keynote speaker. Hammerin’ Hank promised those who gathered that he would return to throw out the first pitch on opening day. But, alas, there’s the rub. Currently the ballpark is half finished, with no projected date for construction to resume, nor a prediction of when the Warthogs (now the Dash) might play their first game there. The stadium went from eye-opener to eyesore in just a few short months, and it now stands as a constant reminder of what can go wrong when developers don’t put their own money into their own projects. Several years ago, Winston-Salem Warthogs owner Billy Prim (also founder of Blue Rhino propane tanks and Primo water) and his now expartner, Flip Filipowski (a pioneer in the software industry) announced plans to move their team from Ernie Shore Field into a brand new stadium that would overlook downtown. The cost of construction was set at $22 million dollars, which was comparable to that of the Greensboro Grasshoppers’ new digs. Billy and Flip convinced city council to put up $12 million dollars, while the two developers would secure the other $10 million in loans from area banks. In addition to the lure of a new ballpark, the carrot that Prim held out to council was a promise of developing $189 million dollars worth of offices, stores, restaurants, and apartments adjacent to the stadium. Not long after construction began, however, Filipowski dropped out of the deal, leaving Prim to complete the project. Then came news that the cost of the stadium had been grossly underestimated, and would balloon to $38 million dollars. Prim had hoped that city council would cough up the difference, but this time Mayor Allen Joines refused, leaving Prim to search for other partners. It is now believed that Prim has secured an additional $10 million dollars in financing, leaving him just $6 million short of his new goal. As such he has reportedly sought out partners, such as RichardChildress and ISP owner Ben Sutton to ante up the needed cash, but thusfar neither man has expressed any interest in the deal, at least notpublicly. Meanwhile, Prim spokesperson Kevin Mortensen told the Business Journal thatcompletion of the stadium was not contingent upon securing anotherinvestor. In fact, Mortensen indicated that, if need be, Prim wouldmake up the difference out of his own pocket. And that brings me to themain sticking point. Both Prim and Filipowski are very wealthymen, each reportedly capable of paying for the project by themselves.So why the delays? There is talk that Filipowski’s divorce triggeredthe entire financing fiasco, and that the partnership demise wasfurther complicated by the fact that his ex-wife is also the sister ofPrim’s wife. But again, both men had the means to build the stadiumbefore the divorce or the dissolution of their partnership. Instead,they sought and received public funds for what should have been aprivately held and financed project, something that worked well for theGrasshoppers, who didn’t use a cent of taxpayer money to erectNewBridge Bank Park. So where do we go from here? Everyone agrees thatthe city can’t afford to have a half-built stadium adorning the I-40corridor in perpetuity. It’s bad for our image and can impede futuredevelopment deals. That’s why one option is for us to take Mortensen athis word and just wait for Prim to sink his own money into the project,and hope that construction will resume quickly. On the other hand, wehave no guarantees of that happening. That leaves the secondoption, which is for the city to do the unthinkable and chip in another$6 million to cover the shortfall. If the latter course ispursued, Prim should realize that today’s taxpayers are understandablyangry about bailing out businesses, much less bailing them out with nostake in the profits. That’s why if council considers pledging theadditional funds, they should also insist upon one major caveat. Thecity’s total investment would rise to $18 million, so, in return,Winston-Salem would own 51 percent of Prim’s Sports Menagerie Stadium,LLC. Under the terms of this agreement, Prim could manage the company,but the city would manage the finances and accounting. and, if thingsgo as Prim has suggested, then the city could recoup its investmentthree fold in 25 years. Along the way, part of each year’s profitscould be set aside for education and public safety. The ideaof a municipality owning a stadium is not without precedent, and, wherethe Dash is concerned, it was actually Hank Aaron himself who firstproffered the idea of public ownership. On that October day two yearsago, Aaron told the excited crowd, “Remember one thing. Thisis your ballpark. It’s your dollars”. Perhaps the home-run king wastrying to tell us something more prophetic than we first realized. Butif taxpayers do invest in the new stadium, we should reap the benefits.Either way, city council needs to move forward on this matter quickly,and start exercising its power to control a development in which it isalready invested. Hammerin’ Hank is waiting. So are we.

JimLongworth 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 (cablechannel 15).

…Today’staxpayers are understandably angry about bailing out businesses, muchless bailing them out with no stake in the profits. That’s why ifcouncil considers pledging the additional funds, they should alsoinsist upon one major caveat….own 51 percent of Prim’s SportsMenagerie Stadium, LLC. …Prim could manage the company, but the Citywould manage the finances and accounting.