Politics & Government

Wichita could have disclosed development deal with baseball team sooner, mayor says

Wichita city officials could have told the public sooner about a side deal to help bring a Minor League Baseball team to town, Mayor Jeff Longwell said Thursday. Earlier in the week he said he couldn’t because of league rules.

Over the course of 18 months, 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.

The existence of the side deal was undisclosed until its details appeared in The Sunday Eagle. The city has said it intended to post the agreement online as part of its meeting agenda packet Friday, but the website was down until Monday.

Wichita is offering the owners of the team up to 4.5 acres of city-owned property around a taxpayer-funded stadium for $1 an acre, with the option to buy another property across the river within the next 10 years for between $1 million and $1.5 million.

The City Council voted Tuesday to postpone the vote for two weeks to give the public a chance to learn more about the deal.

On Thursday, the city held a town hall via social media, responding in real time to questions and comments on various platforms. As part of the town hall, Longwell released a statement on video explaining the process of negotiating with the team.

Longwell announced that the Baby Cakes would be relocating to Wichita for the 2020 season and Lawrence-Dumont Stadium would be torn down in September.

Wichita then razed the old stadium and started work on a new ballpark without a signed contract with the team.

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.

Longwell said Monday that the city knew upfront that the team demanded development rights or it wouldn’t come to Wichita.

In his prepared statement Thursday, Longwell expressed regret for not disclosing the side deal sooner.

“Even though we couldn’t share the initial details of the private development agreement, . . . we could have been more transparent, at the very least announced that a deal was forthcoming,” Longwell said.

That seemingly contradicts Longwell’s statement earlier this week that the development deal wasn’t made public sooner because of Minor League Baseball rules, citing a letter he had received from the commissioner.

Longwell said the city approved an agreement between Wichita, the team’s owners, MiLB and the Pacific Coast League in December.

As part of those negotiations, city officials agreed to sign a nondisclosure agreement, Longwell said.

“We additionally were discussing with the team’s ownership group, separate from Minor League Baseball and Pacific Coast League, their interest in securing development rights around the stadium,” Longwell said.

“We were unable to complete those development rights negotiations since December. Since that time, we have been working to complete these negotiations,” he said.

Although detailed negotiations with the team started last summer, the terms of the development deal weren’t reached by the city and the team owners until two weeks ago, a city official said during the town hall.

“These deals are sensitive and complicated,” Longwell said. “And we’ve been working hard to make sure that we’re achieving the best deal possible for our city.”

The City Council is expected to vote on the agreement on March 19.

“The business of baseball is complicated and there are a great number of rules that we must follow,” Longwell said. “But I think we knocked it out of the park. Without giving cash incentives, we were able to formulate a plan that will spark much needed and timely development in that corridor while still providing for public access and sidewalks.”

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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.