Government & Politics

Wyandotte County padlocks T-Bones stadium, evicts team for months of unpaid rent

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas officially evicted the Kansas City T-Bones from their stadium near Village West Monday — even as owners say they’re finalizing negotiations to sell the team.

UG officials changed locks and padlocked the gates Monday morning after the team racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent and utility bills at the county-owned stadium. The team has been for sale for months, but in a statement Monday afternoon, the T-Bones said a deal would be completed sometime this week.

The statement said the current ownership and a prospective new owner, who was not identified, had been in close contact with the UG and both had “satisfied a number of action steps” to move towards closing on the sale.

John Ehlert is the current owner. His son, Adam Ehlert, is team president.

The team initially expressed indignation at the UG’s decision to lock it out.

“We are shocked by what appears to be this capricious action,” the original statement read. Eleven minutes later, a revised statement without that sentence was released.

UG officials say the official eviction has been years in the making.

“They well knew that this was going to happen. Short of them coming in and paying the debt that they owe, this was going to happen,” said UG spokesman Mike Taylor. “They knew that so they should not have been surprised one bit.”

The UG issued an eviction notice in August after the T-Bones accumulated more than $760,000 in back rent and utility payments. As of Aug. 16, owners had made only three of 48 monthly payments of $1,678, putting the team in default for 45 months.

In September, the UG issued a one-month reprieve on eviction after the team made a $50,000 payment. But that extension expired at midnight Monday. Government officials and locksmiths arrived at the stadium about 6 a.m. Monday to change the locks and padlock the gates, Taylor said.

Before locking the stadium, officials allowed some vendors to retrieve their items. Likewise, Taylor said the government will allow employees to come back for personal items.

“We will work with them to let them back in and get those items but as far as anything else we won’t allow them back in,” he said.

Will T-Bones get a new owner?

Taylor said the government remains optimistic that a sale to a new owner will help keep baseball in KCK.

It’s unclear whether the current or new owners would pick up the hundreds of thousands of dollars owed — but Taylor said the government expects to be paid.

“The UG has said from the beginning that evicted or not we would seek collection of that debt from the Ehlerts or the LLC they have through our own means,” he said. “So we’re going to pursue them through the courts to collect as much of that debt as we can.”

Unlike minor league clubs, the T-Bones play in an independent league and have no affiliation with a Major League Baseball team. Josh Schaub, commissioner of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, said the association is committed to keeping a team in Kansas City.

The sale isn’t finalized but is nearing completion. Officials said Monday evening there will be a management agreement with a new ownership group on the UG Board of Commissioners agenda Thursday. The league requires a lease as a prerequisite to approving the sale, he said.

Schaub sided with the team in contending that the lockout was unnecessary.

“I still have a sense of frustration because there’s a buyer in place,” Schaub said. “There’s something pending in front of the commission right now to approve a potential new lease. So I was surprised by the fact that they went through with the eviction.”

The eviction comes after a banner year for the team: The T-Bones won the American Association Division regular season title before losing the South Division Championship Series last month in extra innings to the Sioux City Explorers.

A history of baseball bailouts

The eviction—and possible change in ownership— culminates a bumpy partnership between the UG and the Ehlerts.

In 2003, the Duluth-Superior Dukes moved from Minnesota and became the T-Bones, setting up shop in a new privately-owned stadium named after CommunityAmerica Credit Union.

But after attendance began lagging in 2010, team owners and local government officials said private ownership was not sustainable.

The UG bought the 6,200-seat stadium in 2013 from Ehlert Development Corp., an affiliate of 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 sales tax revenue (STAR) bonds generated by retail sales in the Village West development.

Despite public sector support, the team struggled financially.

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 ended up paying $125,000 in property taxes on the parking lot and maintenance fees for common areas.

In another bailout effort, the Unified Board of Commissioners in 2017 unanimously approved a measure to replace its 20-year lease agreement with the team with a new deal that had taxpayers pitch in on the ballpark’s property taxes and utilities.

At the time, commissioners who voted in favor of the new deal said it was better to have the T-Bones playing in the taxpayer-owned stadium rather than risk having it sit empty.

“People have spent a lot more on stadiums and teams than we have,” then UG Mayor Mark Holland said. “I think of the Chiefs and the Royals. Jackson County gave almost $600 million to the Chiefs and Royals.”

The UG sent a letter of default to the T-Bones in 2018, when the team was put up for sale.

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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