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Stadium completion date undetermined

by Keith Barber

dirt. politics, updates, trends and other vital information Stadium completion date undetermined ‘Dash’ unveiling held in midst of baseball team’s restructuring

The official unveiling of the new name for the Winston-Salem minor league baseball franchise Dec. 4 was as well orchestrated as the four-piece Dixieland band that played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” for the hundreds crammed into the Millennium Center. The event was staged like the big ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve as digital clocks on large video projection screens counted down to a “Baseball New Year.” At precisely 12:25 p.m., team owner Billy Prim and Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines pulled back a black tarpaulin to reveal the team’s new name — the Winston-Salem Dash — to thunderous applause from more than 700 people in attendance. Joines told the audience the team’s new name pays homage to the union of Winston and Salem, and celebrates the connection of the present to the future. “The new baseball stadium and the new team represent a whole new era in the future of Winston-Salem,” Joines said. Less than a mile away, nine trucks dotted the excavated area where the new baseball stadium is currently under construction on a 28-acre site bordered by 1 st Street, Peters Creek Parkway and Business 40. From the vantage point of an observation deck, a cement pump truck could be seen laying the foundation for upper-deck seating as approximately 50 construction workers performed a variety of tasks. Prim addressed the scaled-back construction operations during the unveiling ceremony. He referred to the team’s announcement the previous week of his buyout of business partner and brother-inlaw Andrew “Flip” Flipowski. “I will become the sole owner of the team and the stadium,” Prim said. “This period of transition requires some patience. The construction activity out of necessity has slowed some until we ensure we have the right structure in place to move forward.” The “right structure” will not be the $22.6 million facility originally proposed by Brookstown Development Partners and Sports Menagerie LLC, Prim said. “We’re going to invest an additional $16 million in this stadium to bring the total combined investment in our stadium to $38 million. You do this once about every fifty years or so. Let’s do it right,” he said. The new proposed facility will feature an upper-deck seating area, an expanded concourse, entertainment venues, a club restaurant and a 15,000-square-foot “Kids Zone,” Prim said. Prim’s company, Sports Menagerie LLC, and Brookstown Development Partners secured the original $22.6 million for a 5,500-seat baseball stadium in separate agreements made with the city of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County last year. In his prepared remarks at the Nov. 4 unveiling, Prim did not comment on how he and his development partners would raise the additional $16 million. Kevin Mortesen of Mandalay Baseball Properties declined to discuss the financing, but said, “It falls into the existing agreement with the city.” The deal In a deal approved unanimously by the Winston-Salem City Council in November 2007, the city agreed to provide $12 million up front for Phase I of the project — the construction of the baseball stadium. The construction of Phase II, which will include a mixed-use development surrounding the stadium, will be the sole responsibility of Prim and his development partners. The city council resolved to raise $5.5 million of its total investment from the sale of Ernie Shore Field to Wake Forest University. The agreement further stipulates that $1 million of the city’s investment come from its economic development fund, and the remainder would be generated by a $5.5 million loan taken out by the city. In March 2007, the Forsyth County Commissioners passed a resolution by a 4-3 margin to provide economic incentives up to $12.5 million to Sports Menagerie and Brookstown Development Partners. The funds would be paid in annual installments over a 25-year period and would not exceed 55 percent of the property-tax increases generated by the construction of the downtown ballpark. The county would make the payments between 2014 and 2038. Prim and his development partners have agreed to pay back the principal and interest on the loans over a 25-year period. The Dash’s owners will pay back the loans with ticket surcharges and revenues generated from stadium operations. The city’s agreement states that if the revenue generated by ticket surcharges falls short of the city’s annual debt service on the $12 million, Sports Menagerie will provide the city with a letter of credit to make up the difference. In addition, Sports Menagerie is responsible for investing $8.6 million in Phase I of the project. At the end of the 25-year term, the agreement calls for Sports Menagerie to convey the title to the baseball stadium and underlying property to the city. However, Prim and his partners have the option of buying the stadium back from the city at its fair market value.

Opening day

The completion date for the stadium construction as stated in the city’s agreement with Sports Menagerie is April 2010. However, banners posted at the new stadium site boast that play will begin in the spring of 2009. South Ward Winston-Salem Councilwoman Molly Leight said she was keeping her fingers crossed that the stadium will open in time for play next spring. “It’s hard to believe we’re going to make it for the 2009 season, but I sure hope so,” she said. Prim told the hundreds at the unveiling ceremony that the timing of the stadium’s opening will depend on the successful execution of his buyout agreement with Flipowski, but he assured those in attendance that baseball would be played in the downtown ballpark in 2009. “It may mean that opening day doesn’t open on the exact date you think but regardless we’re going to do what it takes to make the natural sense for the long term of this project,” he said. The Dash’s home opener is slated for April 23, leaving many to wonder where the team will play if the new facility is still under construction at that time. On Dec. 5, Wake Forest University Assistant Athletic Director Steve Schutt said the university had not been contacted by the Dash’s owners regarding the team’s possible use of Ernie Shore Field next spring. Ernie Shore Field, constructed in the 1950s, underwent a substantial renovation 15 years ago and currently serves as the only professional baseball facility in Winston- Salem. Mortesen said once the ownership restructuring is complete, the Dash’s management will have a better idea of the downtown ballpark’s readiness for play on Opening Day. “We’re exploring options, but we’re still shooting for April 23,” he said.

Assurances and skepticism

District B Forsyth County Commissioner Richard Linville said he is skeptical of Prim’s assurances. Linville was one of three county commissioners who voted against the publicprivate partnership between the county and ballpark developers. Linville said he’s been concerned by the inactivity he’s witnessed at the construction site in recent weeks. “I didn’t think it was something that taxpayers wanted to be a part of,” Linville said. “The county could be paying out tax money to a project that it might not be able to recover over time.” Northwest Ward Winston-Salem Councilwoman Wanda Merschel disagreed with Linville’s assessment. Merschel pointed out the city’s debt service is covered by the various agreements with Sports Menagerie and Brookstown Development Partners. Merschel said she believes the community as a whole supports the construction of the new stadium for a number of reasons. “The area where the stadium is located was a blighted area. It was cutting off two core areas — downtown and West Salem. It wasn’t producing anything. With the improvements, it will be a producer and add to the vibrancy of downtown,” she said. Merschel commended Prim and the stadium’s developers for their efforts to reach out to the stadium’s neighbors to address concerns about its impact on the area. Eight stakeholder meetings have been held in the past year to discuss lighting, noise, traffic and parking with roughly 800 residents who could be affected by the stadium’s construction, she said. Merschel’s optimism is shared by many in the Winston-Salem community, said Steve DeLay, chief marketing officer of Mandalay

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Winston-Salem Dash owner Billy Prim admires his minor league baseball team’s new logo unveiled during a ceremony at the Millennium Center on Dec. 4. Prim told more than 700 people in attendance that ownership of the team is being restructured to make him the sole owner, and he and his development partners plan on investing an additional $16 million in the downtown ballpark. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

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