New Kansas City T-Bones owners say upgrades will bring more than baseball to stadium

The T-Bones will stay in Kansas City, Kansas, after the local government approved a $1 million infusion of tax revenues to help the team — buoyed by a new owner — stay put.

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas approved a management agreement on Thursday night with a prospective new owner of the team. It was finalized just days after the county evicted the T-Bones from their publicly owned stadium in Village West for amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars in past due rent and utility payments.

With the new agreement in place, the prospective owner now only needs approval from the T-Bones’ league, the American Association of Professional Baseball. The league may vote as early as next week to approve the sale.

But the new owners promise more than just baseball in KCK.

Mark Perry, who said he will become the new team president, laid out plans for shuffleboard, pickleball, sand volleyball and bocce ball at the venue. He said the new owners are even considering a wintertime ice sheet that could host skating and hockey.

Those features will help make the T-Bones stadium a year-round attraction that can draw families, adults and corporate groups. Fans increasingly demand fun experiences at the ballpark, he said.

“And baseball’s going on in the background,” he told commissioners Thursday. “I’m a baseball guy, but I get it. It’s about the experience.”

The team’s new majority owner will be local entrepreneur Mark Brandmeyer. He’s a partner at Built Interior Construction and a principal at health care investment firm Brandmeyer Enterprises. His family previously owned Enturia, a Leawood company that made medical devices that help prevent infection. The family sold that company to drug wholesaler Cardinal Health in 2014 for $490 million.

Perry said the new ownership group, called Max Fun LLC, will invest significantly in the stadium, the staff and marketing to broaden the customer base and improve the team’s public image.

“We’re taking over an operation that has not performed well as a business consistently in the last several years,” he said. “That’s not always easy.”

Commissioners voted 9-1 to approve the deal with the new owners.

In the agreement, Max Fun committed to spend at least $500,000 on stadium improvements. The local government also committed to spending at least $1 million from Kansas sales tax revenue, or STAR, bonds. Officials said they would work through the specifics of both those provisions over the next year.

Under the agreement, the government and the company will split the cost of utilities for the first year. Afterwards, Max Fun is responsible for those bills. The new owner would not be obligated to write a monthly rent check, but is responsible for paying property taxes on an adjacent parking lot and covering all operating costs of the stadium.

Only Commissioner Ann Brandau-Murguia voted against the measure. She lauded plans from the prospective new owners. But she said the government should have opened up the redevelopment opportunity to a wider pool of interested parties.

“I am not voting no on your proposal,” she said. “I am voting no on the process.”

Commissioner James Walters, though, said the county had little choice in the matter: “We are where we are,” he said.

He said he was “thrilled” that new owners planned to invest in the community.

“I think it has turned out well for us,” he said.

Several KCK residents spoke out against the plans, saying the new owners should have to pay their own way without taxpayer support.

The government previously committed about $8 million to buying and improving the baseball stadium, which was privately built in 2003. It’s also offered multiple bailouts of the team and is owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in overdue bills.

Even if the county recovers its debts, taxpayers will still be in the hole, said Mary Gerlt, a property manager who unsuccessfully ran for the commission.

“We’re starting the cycle all over again...,” she said. “I don’t understand why we continue to stick taxpayers with a bill for bad decisions.”

While the agreement includes no base rent, the county expects to receive revenues from several provisions: The UG will receive 5% of all ticket revenues for non-baseball events, continue to collect a 50-cent tax on all tickets to go toward county parks and receive a share of net profits. Additionally, the government will collect a $1 fee for every ticket sold after the first 200,000 in a season.

The stadium will be made available for high school sports and parks and recreation events.

The county is requiring a $100,000 letter of credit to cover utility payments for the first year and a surety bond to cover the capital improvements.

Commissioners approved a five-year lease with three five-year renewal options.

It’s unclear how much the new agreement differs from the current arrangement with the T-Bones. County officials did not provide a copy of the current lease agreement.

But in an August eviction notice, officials said the team had missed 45 of 48 monthly payments of $1,678.78. At that time, the team also owed more than $680,000 in past due utility bills.

Before the lease was renegotiated in 2017, the team was responsible for $33,000 in annual rent payments.

The team has struggled financially for years.

The UG agreed to buy the 6,200-seat stadium in 2013 from Ehlert Development Corp., an affiliate of team owner John Ehlert, for $5.5 million. The UG at the time said it would spend another $2.5 million for upgrades. Both the purchase and the improvements were funded with STAR bonds generated by nearby retail sales.

In 2016, the UG sent a letter demanding that the team catch up on its taxes and fees. The team replied that it had not generated enough revenue to cover the obligations, and the UG paid $125,000 in property taxes on the parking lot and maintenance fees for common areas. That was followed by a notice of default in 2018 and eviction this year.

Even after multiple bailouts, county officials have maintained the importance of keeping baseball in the area.

They view the T-Bones as an important piece of the wider retail development at Village West, which is also home to the Kansas Speedway and Sporting KC’s Children’s Mercy Park. In 2017, the UG said the T-Bones generated an annual economic impact of $4.2 million.

The new owners believe there’s opportunity to make money on the endeavor, so long as they spend some cash up front

“We think we can or we wouldn’t be doing it,” Perry said.

Even with the sale, he said the Ehlerts did not stand to make money off the transaction. The new owners will assume debts owed to vendors, but Perry said the current owners have struggled to bear ongoing operational costs.

“I feel bad that things ended up like they did,” he told reporters. “I feel bad for the Ehlerts who brought the team here. I feel bad for the taxpayers.”

But he said the ownership group is focused on making sure they — and taxpayers — recoup their investments in the team.

“We understand the past and again it’s unfortunate,” he said. “But we’re really looking to the future and the positive things we can make happen.”

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Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas