There are, as Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell puts it, “plenty of checks and balances” that must occur before ground breaks on a new baseball stadium downtown.
There are also endpoints to each of those checks that make the project increasingly realistic.
Armed with an outline of how the city can clear those hurdles and with some obstacles already passed, Longwell has laid out plans for replacing 83-year-old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium with a $60 million to $65 million facility and occupying it with a minor-league franchise affiliated with a major-league club.
A shovel could go in the ground as early as 2018.
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell
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“A shovel could go in the ground as early as 2018,” Longwell said.
First, the city must sell the STAR bonds it was granted when the City Council voted 7-0 last month to expand the downtown river area’s STAR bond district. Longwell expects those sales to generate around $40 million, a figure that must be approved by the state.
STAR bonds, or sales tax revenue bonds, allow the city to borrow money for development and to pay back the debt from future increases in sales tax income from the district.
Roughly an additional $20 million will come from a Tax Increment Financing district, in which property taxes within a district are used for development. Longwell said that arrangement would be “short-lived.”
The bonds must be sold by June 1, and Longwell expects architectural planning to begin as early as late summer. The stadium project, which would include a National Baseball Congress museum and restaurant, a pedestrian bridge and new parking structures, would be the centerpiece for the city to push for more development near the river.
“We’re looking for more bars and restaurants and opportunities that will coincide with the activities surrounding the baseball,” Longwell said. “I want to see us get to the point where the community will consider that whole area a gathering place.”
Longwell said nothing from Lawrence-Dumont Stadium will be saved except possibly a nostalgic item such as a foul pole. The current inhabitants, the Wingnuts, an independent team playing in the American Association, would also be displaced in favor of an affiliated team.
Longwell has had conversations with multiple major-league organizations about bringing their minor-league teams to Wichita, though he would not say which teams. In the past year, San Antonio’s Double-A franchise has been mentioned as looking for a new home if the city agrees to build a new ballpark in hopes of gaining a Triple-A franchise.
Wichita had affiliated baseball dating to 1930, when the Class-A Aviators were owned by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Between 1950 and 2007, when the Double-A Wranglers left for Springdale, Ark., Wichita had 45 seasons of affiliated baseball.
“At minimum level, I think that we need to require at least a Double-A team,” Longwell said. “Double-A is a good brand of baseball, and oftentimes you see guys jump from there to the majors. It’s just a brand of baseball that the community can connect with.”
The new stadium would also house the NBC World Series, an amateur tournament that began in 1935. The tournament would likely look for an alternate site in either 2018 or 2019 during construction, but a new stadium would provide vitality.
When you have a new stadium, people want to come down.
Kevin Jenks, director NBC World Series
“When you have a new stadium, people want to come down,” NBC director Kevin Jenks said. “They want to taste it, see it, smell it, touch it and get a sense of what it’s about. That’s kind of an easy sell when you have a new stadium, as long as you’re doing everything else right.”