The Wichita Wingnuts will leave Lawrence-Dumont Stadium at the end of this season because the city has informed the team that the stadium won't be available a year from now, the team general manager said Thursday.
"What we know, from our conversations with the city, is that 2018 is going to be the last year for Lawrence-Dumont Stadium," said Brian Turner, Wingnuts general manager.
The future of the Wingnuts has yet to be determined, Turner said. The team's ownership group is considering options and will make an announcement sometime during this season on the long-term outlook for the franchise.
The Wingnuts shocked local baseball fans with the announcement on Twitter and the team website that the 2018 season will be the team's final call at Lawrence-Dumont.
The team made the announcement now to let the fans know this will be their last chance to see professional baseball at Lawrence-Dumont, a city landmark since it opened in 1934.
"One of the things we're hoping with this year is people will — understanding that it is the last year for Lawrence-Dumont Stadium — get out and see the stadium one last time and make sure the stands are packed every night and give the guys a good atmosphere to play in as they look to win another championship," Turner said.
The stadium is owned by the city government. City Hall's efforts in the past year have focused on tearing it down and building a new stadium.
The goal is to attract a minor-league team affiliated with a Major League Baseball franchise that would replace the Wingnuts, who play in an independent league.
Mayor Jeff Longwell, who has been spearheading the effort to bring back affiliated baseball, could not be reached for comment.
City Manager Robert Layton said the city and the Wingnuts have been negotiating for several months about improvements to the stadium, but that it would cost millions of dollars to bring it up to modern ballpark standards.
"There are a number of repairs we're making just for safety purposes" so the team can continue to play there this season, Layton said.
That's costing the city about $1 million, and those repairs are already underway, he said.
But going beyond that would cost a lot more money.
"You do the structural (repairs), then you have to look at substantial improvements to be able to accommodate additional skyboxes or changes in skyboxes," Layton said. "And then what you need in a modern stadium anymore, to get significant attendance, you need family areas, you need significant party areas or gathering areas and that's all pretty substantial in terms of the cost."
That kind of spending wouldn't make sense with a new stadium on the horizon.
"The amount of money it would take to renovate Lawrence-Dumont just doesn't make us feel that would be a cost-effective approach," Layton said. "No final decisions have been made, but it appears that it would just not be prudent for us to invest substantially in that stadium and so we continue to look at alternatives."
In the last two years, the city has set up taxing districts to borrow against future sales and property tax income to generate money for a new ballpark.
The council also voted, on April 10, to spend $50,000 to extended its contract with Beacon Sports Capital Consulting Partners, an agent trying to find Wichita an MLB-affiliated team. The initial contract, also for $50,000, was made in October.
The last MLB-affiliated team in Wichita was the double-A level Wranglers, who left for a new stadium in Springdale. Ark., in 2007.
The only plausible alternative for the Wingnuts to stay in Wichita past this season would be to make a deal with Wichita State University, Turner said.
WSU's Eck Stadium is the only other baseball field in Wichita that's big enough to meet the minimum seating requirement for teams in the American Association of Independent Baseball, he said.
On the field, the Wingnuts have been a rousing success since their inaugural season in 2008.
They've won their division title for eight consecutive seasons, and they played in their fifth league championship series last year, losing to the Winnipeg Goldeyes. They won the title in 2014.
The team announcement paid tribute to the history of Lawrence-Dumont.
“The Wingnuts organization feels incredibly fortunate to have called Lawrence-Dumont home for the past decade, and for having the chance to continue adding to the rich history and tradition of baseball here in the Air Capital.
“Lawrence-Dumont Stadium has been such an integral part of not only the history of Wichita baseball, but the entire fabric of this community,” Wingnuts owner and president Nate Robertson said in a news release posted online.
The Wingnuts, who have played at Lawrence-Dumont for the past 10 years, plan to honor the stadium with a series of giveaways and events throughout the season, the team announcement said.
Events will include Wichita heritage nights during four Saturday home games. The first 1,000 fans at the Aug. 28 game will receive a mini replica of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
The opening day game is against the Kansas City T-Bones on May 18.