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Norwich approves Defenders lease transfer; Richmond to study new ballpark

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The impending move of the Connecticut Defenders to Richmond is closer to reality after the Norwich City Council approved a transfer of the team's lease to Dodd Stadium. Meanwhile, the city of Richmond is embarking on a financial study of a new Shockoe Bottom ballpark -- and we think we know what the results will show.
The impending move of the Connecticut Defenders (Class AA; Eastern League) to Richmond is closer to reality after the Norwich City Council approved a transfer of the team's lease to Dodd Stadium. Meanwhile, the city of Richmond is embarking on a financial study of a new Shockoe Bottom ballpark -- and we think we know what the results will show.

First, the news from Connecticut. The Norwich City Council unanimously approved the transfer of the lease of Dodd Stadium from Lou DiBella to a Richmond group making no bones about wanting to move the franchise to Virginia. The city council met in closed-door session with reps from the Richmond group and Eastern League President Joe McEarcharn. The specifics of the session weren't released, but we've been told the Richmond group pledged to both pay back almost $400,000 in back rent and police pay owed to the city as well as keep current on rent this season.

For Norwich, transferring the lease was merely a matter of reality: after this season the Defenders have a buyout clause (for $140,000), so they are basically free to move no matter what Norwich does. We're also told the city council was assured -- in nonbinding terms, of course -- that the Jamestown Jammers (short season; NY-Penn League), owned by Rich Baseball, was slotted to move to Norwich whenever the Defenders leave.

Which could, but probably won't, happen as soon as 2010. So far paperwork submitted to St. Pete and the Eastern League concerns the transfer of the franchise ownership, not the move of the team. It's expected all parties will sign off on the sale of the team, but the Richmond baseball group will need to have a firmer plan on the future of facilities in Richmond before any consideration is given to a move.

This is where Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones comes in. He's commissioned Davenport & Co. of Richmond, Chmura Economics and Analytics of Richmond, and Economic Research Associates of Washington  (at a cost of $100,000) to study whether a proposed Shockoe Bottom redevelopment will generate enough additional taxes to fund a $60-million ballpark. Developer Highland Properties originally proposed building the ballpark, but then backed off that plan and instead is arguing the city should set up a stadium authority and build the facility with tax-increment financing generated by the $363-million redevelopment.

The thing is, the issue has been studied once, in a report submitted to the city in September 2008. And that report was carefully filed away by then-Mayor Douglas Wilder. Why did he refuse to release the report? Because, we're told by some in the Richmond city government, the report concluded there would be a huge risk the city would need to back the project because relying on tax-increment financing would be hugely speculative. And using Richmond general funds to pay for a new ballpark would be highly unpopular, especially if a new ballpark is in Shockoe Bottom, where activists are lining up to oppose the project. So instead of releasing a report saying the new ballpark wouldn't work, Wilder chose to not release it.

The new report is due in two months, well before the city considers the Shockoe Bottom redevelopment in July and August.

We would expect the move of the Defenders to be addressed when the new report is issued. The Richmond group is working toward a new ballpark but has floated the idea of playing at a renovated Diamond, the former home of the Richmond Braves (Class AAA; International League). Some in Richmond city government say renovating the Diamond would be the lower-cost and safer way to proceed. And we hear MiLB officials could live with either plan -- but one needs to be on the table before the Defenders will receive permission to move.

RELATED STORIES: Defenders ballpark lease transfer on tap for next week; new team for Norwich chosen?; Renovated Diamond may do in RichmondMiLB to Richmond: Show us the ballpark plan; Richmond group applies for permission to buy team; New Richmond ballpark would rely on sales-tax rebates; Richmond group says it's close to buying team

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