Unified Government takes another step toward buying T-Bones’ ballpark

A procedural vote Thursday night cleared the way for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., to bail out its minor league baseball team by buying privately owned CommunityAmerica Ballpark.

The Unified Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a measure that provides notice of a change to the development plan in the Village West area where the Kansas City T-Bones play. A sales agreement is being negotiated.

But without the plan change, sale talks could not have gone forward.

Only three of nearly 20 speakers at a public hearing opposed the $8 million deal. Only one of 44 emails received by the county clerk opposed it.

The proposed deal would be financed with sales tax revenue bonds, commonly called STAR bonds. Sales taxes collected by the 111 businesses in the Village West area would go to pay off the bonds by the end of 2017.

Those same bonds have financed most of the public improvements at Village West and the construction of Sporting Park, home to the 2013 Major League Soccer champs, Sporting Kansas City. When the baseball park was built a decade ago, STAR bonds could not be used for stadium projects.

The team has been successful attracting fans over the past decade, but both the team and Unified Government officials say private ownership of the stadium was not sustainable.

“The risk we’re now facing is that we may lose the T-Bones,” said Deputy County Administrator Doug Bach.

Losing the team would cost the community $5 million a year, he said, in lost economic benefits.

If a deal is reached, the Unified Government will pay $5.5 million to acquire the ballpark from T-Bones owner Ehlert Development Corp. and set aside $2.5 million for future repairs and upgrades.

In exchange, the Unified Government has made several demands. The T-Bones would have to stay put for 20 years, although the government would have the right to terminate the lease after the 2015 season.

The team would be responsible for day-to-day operating costs and must keep paying the government 50 cents per ticket, which goes into a fund for parks and recreation improvements.

The Unified Government also proposes that the team share a quarter of all net profits from non-baseball activities at the stadium, such as concerts. The stadium would have to be available year-round for use by the Kansas City, Kan., Parks and Recreation Department, as long as there is no conflict with the baseball schedule.

Also, each high school in the county would have the opportunity to rent the stadium one day a year for $250, plus $50 an hour for lights.

The agreement would give the Unified Government some veto power should the Ehlert family want to sell the team during the course of the lease.

Unless the new owner had “a value of at least $5 million and considerable baseball experience,” the Unified Government could block the sale.

“The development agreement has to be right,” Mayor Mark Holland said. “It has to protect the interest of the taxpayers.”

Also Thursday, the board approved new rules barring the county administrator from making discretionary payments over $50,000 without commission approval, except in an emergency.

Previously there were no limits, which allowed County Administrator Dennis Hays to make two payments totaling $174,000 as part of the option agreement with the team.

The only elected official aware of those payments at the time was then-mayor Joe Reardon. The secrecy upset some commissioners when they first learned of the payments in June.

The public didn’t learn about the payments and the proposed stadium purchase until fall.

Negotiations began in the summer of 2012, Holland said, after the T-Bones’ ownership had been unable to sell the team and the stadium as a package prior to that baseball season. Few knew the team had been for sale.