Politics & Government

Wichita council balks at picking developer for baseball stadium

Wichita will have to wait at least a week to learn who will build the new stadium to house the city’s Triple-A minor league baseball team.

City Council member Bryan Frye asked for additional time to study a design-build agreement for the ballpark, which will cost an estimated $75 million with at least $2 million of accompanying street and infrastructure work.

Frye’s request passed on a 4-3 vote.

Frye objected that he got the contract the morning of Tuesday’s council meeting and said he wanted additional time to verify that the group recommended to design and build the stadium has the required experience in constructing Major or Minor League ballparks.

The park will be built at the site of the former Lawrence-Dumont Stadium northwest of the corner of Maple and McLean. It will be the new home of the team now known as the New Orleans Baby Cakes, a high-level farm team for the Major League Miami Marlins.

The team is scheduled to debut in Wichita at the start of the 2020 baseball season.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said he was comfortable with the experience of the design-build team after a presentation by Don Barnum of the DLR Group, who outlined the company’s experience with dozens of ballparks around the country over the past 30 years.

Longwell said he shared Frye’s frustration over the last-minute delivery of the contract, but said he was willing to go forward because “we are on a tight time frame.”

He called the ballpark “a transformational piece of our community (that will benefit) generations to come,” and said he was ready to get the project underway.

Longwell led the successful two-year effort to bring Major League-affiliated baseball back to Wichita.

The team will replace the Wingnuts, an independent professional team that moved into the vacuum left when the Double-A Wranglers, a farm team of the Kansas City Royals, moved to Arkansas in 2007.

A committee of three city officials and three representatives of the Baby Cakes recommended a design-build team of JE Dunn Construction, EBY Construction, Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, DLR Group, and Professional Engineering Consultants.

The idea is to have one team for both jobs so that construction can proceed faster.

But Dondlinger Construction, part of one of the other teams bidding for the work, questioned whether the preferred team met the criteria the city established in its request for proposals.

In a Nov. 19 letter to the city’s contract compliance officer, Dondlinger vice president of commercial construction Troy Kapels demanded proof that the JE Dunn team has built at least three Major or Minor League ballparks.

“Our team requests the City provide documentation to our team that the JE Dunn Construction team met the experience requirements for the complete contracted services of such work,” Kapels wrote, emphasizing words the request for proposal contained.

Frye said he also wants to see that proof before moving ahead. He said he’s more than confident that the design side of the team has the requisite experience, but he’s not sure about the construction side.

“Trust but verify,” he said. “Answer it definitively for me.”

Lou Schwechheimer, who is the managing general partner and majority owner of the Baby Cakes, said the team is confident in all three groups that bid on the job.

“Every one of the three is eminently qualified,” he said. “All three are elite. That’s a testament to the city for bringing them all in.”

Schwechheimer is a member of the selection team that voted on the recommendation, but said he doesn’t want to discuss much about voting and closed-door deliberations “because I think it would be unfair to everybody in the process.”

But he did say his decision on the winning team was guided by “the fact that they have a breadth of experience across the size stadiums we were looking to build.”

“They had an incredible presentation showing a vision, a connectivity to the Arkansas River and the surrounding neighborhood,” he said.

And “the process was as honorable and transparent as it could have been,” Schwechheimer said

Council member Cindy Claycomb, who was also on the selection team, said she was particularly impressed by the development group’s emphasis on using local subcontractors and including the community in the design process.

“This is going to be a community asset, not a council asset,” she said Tuesday.

Earlier, she said “They (the preferred development group) also really focused on the budget for the ballpark and explained to us how they would stay within that budget.”

And she said all the discussions were above board.

“I never felt any pressure internally to vote for one group or another,” Claycomb said. “I knew people on every one of those teams.”

Council member Jeff Blubaugh also defended the process.

He said the Dunn-led team and the Dondlinger team’s bids were discussed the most. Blubaugh said he questioned whether Dondlinger’s team would be able to complete the project on budget.

With the Dunn team, Blubaugh said, “I thought we were . . . going to get the most bang for the buck.”

Like Claycomb, he said he knew people on all the bidding teams and those relationships played no part in the decision.

“Every team had people that we’re all close to,” Blubaugh said. “I don’t know how you could really say we’re picking this buddy over that buddy.”

For instance, he said, “Most of us think the world of Tom Dondlinger. I mean, how can you not like Tom?”

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.
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.