Politics & Government

Wichita mayor on baseball development deal: ‘If we don’t sign it, they’re not coming’

Specifics about new ballpark in Wichita unveiled

Officials from the city, along with architecture and construction firms, talk about new renderings of a new AAA ballpark that will be built in Delano. (Jan. 23, 2019)
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Officials from the city, along with architecture and construction firms, talk about new renderings of a new AAA ballpark that will be built in Delano. (Jan. 23, 2019)

Editor’s note: This story initially reported that the city was selling 24 acres under and around the ballpark. The city has since clarified that the development areas to be sold total 4 to 4.5 acres.

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, Mayor Jeff Longwell said.

“This was term number one,” Longwell said of the team’s owners, led by majority owner Lou Schwechheimer. “We get to develop some land around the stadium or we don’t need to negotiate any further.”

That’s a detail he couldn’t previously share with the public, Longwell said, because of Minor League Baseball rules.

“It just limits our opportunity to be as transparent as we normally like to be,” he said.

Although the deal with the team is not yet final, the city has already torn down Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and started building a new one that could cost $75 million.

But the City Council still must approve an agreement to sell 4 to 4.5 of 24 acres of city-owned property around the ballpark for $1 an acre to Wichita Riverfront LP. That group is owned by team owners, Schwechheimer has said, along with local investors.

On Monday, Longwell said he doesn’t know who has an ownership interest in Wichita Riverfront LP and that the public won’t know who the local investors are “for a couple of weeks.”

Longwell said the development deal is key.

“If we don’t sign it, they’re not coming.”

Schwechheimer did not return calls for comment Monday.

The terms of the proposed deal were added to the City Council agenda on Friday but were unavailable to the public because of a software glitch on the city’s website, Longwell said.

The details were first reported Sunday by The Eagle.

“It was just coincidental that the website wasn’t able to fully function,” said council member Bryan Frye. “That was unfortunate. I get that that causes people to have mistrust, but it really wasn’t anything more than that.”

Transparency during the process of luring the team has become an issue, Frye and Longwell acknowledge.

“My number one concern was does the public understand the proposed agreement with the development team?” Frye said. He said he wants to make “sure that they have the opportunity to see the documents, to read through them, understand them and give us feedback.”

Longwell said the deal is worth much more to the city than the $1 an acre price tag as a quality of life amenity. He also says the new developments will help pay off the stadium and generate tax revenue for the city.

The development issue is on the council’s agenda for Tuesday, but city leaders say a vote likely will be delayed for a couple of weeks as more information becomes public.

“Now we can be totally transparent,” Longwell said.

‘Ridiculous’

Some people questioned the development deal after details were reported Sunday.

“It’s ridiculous that our city keeps giving away prime real estate next to nothing,” said Jim Martinson, who is on an advisory board that has been reviewing Delano’s master plan, one of the plans that will set standards for development around the ballpark. “That’s ignorant.”

Martinson said he understands the city needs to provide an incentive to the team and make a reasonable deal, but he said this isn’t one.

“They’re going to reap the profits from the river bank from forever on,” he said.

“A number of us on the advisory committee have made our feelings known that we don’t approve of developing the river bank, but we were told, ‘Well, we’re going to anyway,’ “ Martinson said.

“This stuff is all happening behind the scenes with no one knowing about it until it’s sprung . . . in a news article and it’s already pretty much a done deal by the time anyone knows about it. . . . They don’t want to hear it from anybody.”

Mason Lampkin, senior pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church whose property near the ballpark will be redeveloped by a group called Riverfront Partners, issued a statement thanking the council for most likely postponing action on the development plan.

Since the church is significantly impacted by this project, we look forward to dialogue with the City to further understand it and provide our input over issues important to the church and its mission,” the statement said.

‘A very positive thing’

City Council members Jeff Blubaugh and Cindy Claycomb said The Eagle’s initial report focused too much on the $1-an-acre cost and not enough on the entire development deal.

Claycomb said the deal is necessary since the city has a partnership with Schwechheimer and his group who will “spend millions of dollars . . . and as part of that they get something in return.”

She said the city gets much in return, too, as Schwechheimer and his group “create a baseball village around the baseball stadium. That makes sense to me in light of the whole package that we’re looking at.”

Claycomb said there will be a Triple A baseball team, at least 60,000 square feet of development and more than 200 annual events at the ballpark, including about 70 games.

“It’s a very positive thing for the community.”

She said she’s kept her constituents “as informed as possible” at monthly District Advisory Board meetings.

“We’re all working together to try to do the best things we can for Wichita and be as transparent as possible,” Blubaugh said. “I want the public to know everything we know.”

Blubaugh, Claycomb and Frye said they have not been told yet who is a part of the development team.

“I believe the partners he’s bringing to it are the development experts,” Frye said.

He said it’s the responsibility of the city manager and economic development staff “to vet those partners and make sure that they are capable of doing the development.”

Frye said he knows there are concerns about how baseball negotiations have progressed, specifically about the possible land deal.

“I always have a concern about a level playing field and that anyone doing business with the city of Wichita should expect fair rules for all, openness, transparency with the way we do our business,” Frye said. “If the process we have now . . . causes concern that we’re not on a level playing field, then we should definitely look at those policies.”

Council members said they did not know the specifics about the land sale until Friday. Frye said he is “fully confident that Lou, the team, is going to do this project. It’s a good deal for Wichita. It’s a good deal for the development team. And so at the end of the day, we’re going to come together and get this thing done.”

‘Gains and losses’

Friends University political science professor Russell Arben Fox said a central question in the baseball debate — or any others at the city level — is, “What’s our standard for enough transparency?”

“It’s not like there was public debate over which if any teams we’d want to bring in.”

Nor was there a debate about what kind of package a team should be offered or whether that “would include essentially a bunch of free real estate.”

Fox said that’s not to say those incentives are bad.

“There’s gains and losses with every way you approach things,” he said. “Maybe in retrospect, we will see these were important decisions, but they were not done in as transparent a way as possible.”

Fox said it’s now obvious that one of the reasons the team is interested in coming to Wichita is the commercial opportunity.

Those commercial opportunities “arguably could have been presented publicly but weren’t.”

“It’s not like the city has done something uniquely horrible,” Fox said, “but there’s a reason why there are complaints about transparency, and this is one of them.”

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.
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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