Politics & Government

Wichitans frustrated by ballpark deal: ‘It feels like we’re being held hostage’

Wichitans voiced frustrations Tuesday about a deal with a Minor League Baseball team after the mayor hid the ball on an incentive promised to the team.

The City Council was weighing whether to sell city land to the team’s owners for $1 an acre or risk losing the team, according to a deal Mayor Jeff Longwell said was worked out behind closed doors.

“To tear down an existing stadium and break ground on a new one, when we don’t have a signed contract, for a team that could still pull out — that kind of feels like it needs an explanation,” said Todd Ramsey, founder of the branding agency Apples and Arrows in Wichita. “I’m never one to say slow down or pump the brakes on this, but the city should this time.”

“As a citizen, it feels like we’re being held hostage.”

Ramsey was one of seven people who voiced concerns and asked questions about the deal during the public comment period at Tuesday’s Wichita City Council meeting.

The owners of the New Orleans Baby Cakes, led by Lou Schwechheimer, negotiated a deal with city leaders to move to Wichita, but the city had to build a stadium and offer it land to develop around the stadium. That the move was contingent on the development deal was not made public until Monday, months after Lawrence-Dumont Stadium was torn down and as a new stadium is being built.

“If we don’t sign it, they’re not coming,” Longwell said Monday of the deal.

Publicly, it appeared the team had already committed to Wichita. The City Council voted to approve a management agreement with the team in October. The city held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new stadium last month, when the team’s owner declared the team was “all in.”

The land Wichita proposes to sell would be developed by a group called Wichita Riverfront LP, which includes Schwechheimer and other team owners that have not been named. The city could collect taxes from the businesses to help pay for the stadium’s $75 million cost.

The city clarified that the land to be sold to the developers is 4 to 4.5 acres around the stadium. The city owns 24 acres that includes the stadium; it would keep the stadium land, roads and river banks.

Most of the speakers at the council meeting said they support the city’s efforts to develop the west bank of the Arkansas River and build a new baseball stadium. But they were frustrated with the roll-out of that deal, the details of which hadn’t been made public until they appeared in the Sunday Eagle.

Paul Lavender, who lives and works in Wichita, said he thought it showed a lack of respect for Wichitans for city leaders to withhold the details of the land sale until a few days before it was to be put to a council vote.

“I believe this goes beyond a lack of transparency and into the realm of blatant disrespect for the citizens and the community the City Council are charged with representing.”

He said he’s glad the City Council postponed the vote and that he hopes the city handles the situation with “genuine transparency and honesty, providing the public with answers that are thoughtful and deliberate.”

Cindy Claycomb, who represents District 6 on the City Council, asked speakers to email questions so she could send them thorough responses. Brandon Johnson, District I, asked if a social media town hall would help.

But one thing was clear by the end of the meeting: Wichitans want answers. The vote on the land deal was postponed to give the public time to catch up on the deal that has been in the works for months.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said he kept the details quiet because of Minor League Baseball rules. He did not point to the specific rule that would have been broken by talking about the deal after it was announced in September that the team planned to move to Wichita.

He said the commissioner of minor league baseball sent him a letter telling him not to make details of negotiations public. He said he would provide a copy of that letter when he finds it.

“When negotiating, especially if land transactions are involved, we always negotiate them privately,” he said. “So when we have a tentative deal then we can present it to the public.”

“So pretty much (this was the first time it could be made public). I mean, because it all just came into place within the last few weeks, so there hasn’t been an opportunity to go out and say, ‘Well, we’re working on this, we’re working on that.’ It’s been part of the negotiation process all along,” he said.

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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.