Carrie Rengers

Baseball owner: Deal can change Wichita’s reputation ‘as a failed Minor League market’

UPDATED — There are two key questions about a development deal around Wichita’s new ballpark, one that team owner Lou Schwechheimer said he can’t answer yet and one that he is bunting on at best.

Mayor Jeff Longwell has said the New Orleans Baby Cakes won’t move to Wichita unless the city approves a real estate deal allowing the team to develop the area around the stadium, 4.5 acres of which the city plans to sell Schwechheimer and his development group at $1 per acre.

What remains to be answered is who is in the development group and whether Schwechheimer will come without the development deal.

“The development agreement is part of a larger agreement, and at the end of the day, we feel comfortable,” Schwechheimer said. “Our handshake is our bond. We have every intention of spending the rest of our lives in Wichita. End of story. I’ve said that since day one.”

Even without a deal?

“The private development is what’s critical because it allows us to create the family values,” Schwechheimer said. “Our top ticket price is going to be $15.”

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New Orleans Baby Cakes owner Lou Schwechheimer at a groundbreaking for the proposed new baseball stadium last month. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

He said the amenities he plans — restaurants, a hotel, a Ferris wheel and an outdoor ice skating rink among other things — will generate enough money that he can offer lots of deals on tickets.

“The private development gives us an opportunity to be creative,” Schwechheimer said.

The “us” is a group of potentially more than 30 national and local investors, but Schwechheimer won’t say who they are.

“Until we have an agreement, I don’t think I can say that,” he said. “I would want to talk to all of our partners.”

Schwechheimer said he had planned to do some development in New Orleans but ended up choosing to come to Wichita instead because he wanted a Triple A team.

“I personally have not done development,” he said.

However, Schwechheimer said, he’s put together “a pretty substantial group of men and women who are comprised of, I think, visionaries in each of their fields.”

He said that includes “principals of four of the largest development companies in the United States” as well as people from the fields of entertainment, sports, philanthropy, diplomacy and concerts.

“Which bodes well as we try to create a series of concerts . . . at the waterfront.”

In addition to the 20 developers from out of state, Schwechheimer said he’s also in talks with about a dozen Wichitans to be part of the group.

Schwechheimer said the development will be an “enormous benefit to the city” and a catalyst for the entire area around it.

“I always saw the magic of a ballpark as being a real connector to the community.”

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Schwechheimer, who was reached by phone while in Puerto Rico where he said he was giving away baseball equipment, said he plans cultural exchange programs between Wichita and Puerto Rico, Cuba, Aruba and the Dominican Republic.

“Really, an exchange goodwill program just to use our common love of baseball to build bridges.”

Schwechheimer said Wichita can be a great baseball city.

“When we first began the journey, there were a number of folks in baseball . . . who viewed Wichita through the prism of the past, much like they view El Paso, and that was as a failed Minor League market,” he said. “We would rather look at Wichita through the prism of a bright future. . . . It could change the landscape for a generation.”

The Wichita City Council on Tuesday delayed a vote on the development agreement until March 19.

“I applaud the City Council for saying you know what, let’s just take a step back and make sure everybody (has) all the information,” Schwechheimer said.

He said he’ll be at the next meeting.

“I won’t leave ‘till I answer every single question from every single person in the room,” Schwechheimer said.

“We view our obligations to the city of Wichita as a sacred trust. . . . We want to be a community asset that’s here for generations to come.”

While that’s what Schwechheimer wants, he still won’t say if he’ll come if he doesn’t get what he needs.

“The bottom line is I’m optimistic that all those who have been involved from day one want the same thing,” Schwechheimer said.

“We’ll get to the place that we need to be.”

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Carrie Rengers has been a reporter for almost three decades, including 16 years at The Wichita Eagle. Her Have You Heard? column of business scoops runs five days a week in The Eagle. If you have a tip, please e-mail or tweet her or call 316-268-6340.
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