May 18, 2013

City admits it ‘dropped the ball’ on National Baseball Congress tournament, seeks ways to save it

When the city of Wichita bought the National Baseball Congress World Series in 2007, city officials thought they’d purchased a million-dollar asset.

When the city of Wichita bought the National Baseball Congress World Series in 2007, city officials thought they’d purchased a million-dollar asset.

Now city officials are scrambling to find ways to prop up the tournament, after six years of failing to pay attention to its declining prestige, attendance and participation.

It barely broke even last year and its managers, the Wichita Wingnuts independent baseball organization, owe the city $138,000 and have exhausted a $147,500 bank line of credit for the tournament, a city audit disclosed last week.

“I don’t think there’s a doubt, frankly, that we dropped the ball big-time on the NBC at City Hall,” City Council member Jeff Longwell said. “All the proof you need lies in the fact we went two years without knowing that they (the Wingnuts) haven’t paid their leases.”

After learning the Wichita Wingnuts owe the city money and are two years in arrears on lease payments for Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, City Manager Robert Layton has implemented financial controls for the NBC, including requiring a separate set of books for the NBC.

New city finance director Shawn Henning will take a more active role in monitoring the financial performance of the tournament.

Layton pledged last week to assign “the appropriate city staff” to address any issues that develop.

The 2007 purchase

The tournament, founded in 1935 in Wichita by local entrepreneur Raymond “Hap” Dumont, has brought ex-professionals and the country’s best collegiate players to Wichita over 78 years. Baseball Hall of Famers like Satchel Paige, Whitey Herzog, Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield have played in the tournament, as have major league standouts like Barry Bonds and Mike Hargrove.

The tournament brings 32 teams and thousands of spectators to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium each summer. This year’s tournament is scheduled for July 27 through Aug. 10.

The city bought the NBC from Bob and Mindy Rich in 2007 in an effort to keep the tournament from leaving with the Wichita Wranglers for Springdale, Ark.

Former City Council member Paul Gray was one of the negotiators.

“The driver for the deal was the economy was stronger,” Gray said. “We weren’t dealing with any recession. We saw this data from the CVB (Go Wichita) that the tournament had a significant economic impact, strong enough that we couldn’t let it get away.

“They were headed to Springdale at that time, and we simply didn’t want that to happen. We didn’t want to lose an asset that had been in the city for a long time.”

Gray said the tournament “was certainly profitable” in 2007.

“Our people ran numbers on it at that time and it had a net positive value of a million dollars,” he said.

“Obviously, today it doesn’t.”

Gray and Layton said that Joe Pajor, the city’s assistant director of public works and utilities, was City Hall’s first “Mr. Baseball.”

“He was active from a staff standpoint helping us with the negotiations,” Gray said. “But I’d assume that in the normal course of City Hall action, you get a project like this going. Joe’s a busy guy and he has a lot of responsibilities, so he moves on to another project or several, and no one is ever tasked with the follow-up. A great job is done getting this moving, and then it just goes away.”

“Joe’s role was more with capital improvements – what do we need to do to the stadium to upgrade it,” Layton said. “Not really with financial monitoring.”

‘We pay our bills on time’

So tournament oversight slipped away as then-City Manager George Kolb, who negotiated with Gray for the city, departed and the position was filled on an interim basis for more than a year.

Layton, who became Wichita city manager in 2009, said he was unaware of any financial issues with the tournament until reports began surfacing last year that the Wingnuts were slow in paying the tournament’s bills.

Several team managers and operators contacted by The Eagle say those delinquent bill payments – including tournament prize receipts paid as much as a year late – date back to the city’s acquisition of the tournament in 2007.

Those delinquent bills triggered Layton’s audit, announced last fall.

“Not good enough,” Layton said. “We pay our bills on time.”

“There’s your problem with the teams not coming in,” said Bill Kentling, a former tournament general manager. “You’re not going to make the fly-in from Anchorage if the check’s going to bounce.

“Hap Dumont paid his bills the day he came in. He hated to owe any human.”

The audit, released last week, showed the tournament made $26,000 in 2011 and $1,100 in 2012.

The city does not have profit and loss numbers for earlier years, Layton said. Such numbers would require another audit and would be unreliable because the NBC’s books have been commingled with those of professional baseball teams for years.

Council members said they were shocked by the debt the city audit turned up. But after an initial series of meetings last week with Wingnuts officials and others with NBC expertise – including former long-time tournament general manager Steve Shaad – those council members say the tournament can be saved, with proper city financial monitoring and some tweaks to the tournament.

There’s no plan to inject tax money into the tournament to stabilize it, city officials said.

City’s role in future

Most of the NBC changes this year will not be obvious to the average fan, Layton said.

“We’re talking 2014,” he said. “We’ll make some changes internally for 2013, but 2014 is how we make a difference in terms of greater community support, greater team participation, and that has to be defined.

“What can we do to protect regionally important teams, how can we regain our national emphasis and be nationally prominent again?”

There’s no shortage of baseball interest at City Hall. Layton, whose biography photo on the city’s website pictures Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in the background, was one of several public officials in the Des Moines area who led a drive to save the city’s Triple-A baseball franchise, the Iowa Cubs.

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner, Longwell and council member James Clendenin all have baseball backgrounds, and are on record supporting the tournament.

Which starts, they said, by turning the city into a proper business partner for the NBC.

“Pretty simple,” Meitzner said. “When a business buys an asset, it tracks that asset.”

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