JOPLIN, Mo. —
Questions about the ability of the Joplin area to sustain professional baseball and the feasibility of government investing in the proposal were heard Tuesday night by the City Council at a public hearing on the proposed Joplin baseball development.
Two of those who spoke at the hearing supported the proposal, while four questioned the deal or said they would need more questions answered.
Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean asked how many people in the audience supported the idea. About a dozen stood. When she asked how many opposed it, two people stood up.
Proponents were Harvey Hutchinson, representing the city’s parks and recreation advisory board, and Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The chamber board is supportive,” O’Brian said. “At this point, we do believe this is a good opportunity for the city of Joplin.” He said the chamber believes that WLD Suarez Baseball LLC, which owns a franchise of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, would build a retail plaza and parking lots in the area of historic Joe Becker Stadium, bringing retail and restaurant development not previously seen on East Fourth Street, as well as providing affordable family fun.
The city is being asked to pay $4 million to add seating to the stadium, install new lights and update restrooms. The Suarez group would invest about $5.3 million to build the parking lots and an entry plaza to the stadium with eventual loft apartments and retail storefronts to help generate revenue.
City Manager Mark Rohr scheduled a public hearing at Tuesday’s meeting in response to a request by Councilman Mike Woolston and others to get public input.
Resident Rodney Lewis questioned why the government should subsidize free market enterprise. Referring to the requested $4 million city investment, Lewis asked: “Would you grant such a request for my favorite restaurant? Or yours?”
He also asked, “What if they don’t make it?” like the Fort Worth, Texas, Cats team.
Resident Bill Pate questioned the attendance projections, particularly when there are two affiliated minor league teams within about 70 miles of Joplin. He also asked if the city’s agreements with Suarez would keep the team owners from selling the franchise and walking away with the profits despite the city’s investment.
Resident Dan McCreary said, “I think it’s exciting for Joplin to have,” but he had some questions. He said it appears that the team has had a series of owners in recent years. He also questioned how reliable such teams are when some of the franchises, such as the Fort Worth Cats and the St. Joseph Blacksnakes, folded in one to two years.
The Suarez group bought a franchise that formerly was operated as the El Paso Diablos. Some of those involved in the Suarez management worked for the Diablos. That team folded in 2013 because the city of El Paso is building a new stadium for a minor league team affiliated with the San Diego Padres, and the Diablos could not sustain attendance.
Joplin resident Landon Adams, who said he has worked in minor league baseball, asked what contingency plan the city would have if the team left or folded.
Rohr said the city would make the investment in the stadium because the city owns it. The team would lease the stadium. He said the city has been seeking a potential long-term use for Joe Becker because the current tenant, Missouri Southern State University, intends to build its own stadium on campus. If the team left the stadium, the city would have an asset with the investments made in Joe Becker that could be marketed, Rohr said.
Team representative Michael Wray told the council that the Suarez group is willing to sign a 20-year lease for Joe Becker. He previously said the team plans to consistently fill about 2,500 seats.
Wray said the team could attract the average attendance it needs by offering a variety of seating and concessions at affordable prices. He said ticket prices would likely range from as low as $5 per adult for berm admission with lawn seating, to $7 to $9 for fixed stadium seats, $10 to $12 for seats behind home plate, and $15 for corporate or suite sales.
Oscar Suarez and Wray said the new team would be named with input from Joplin residents rather than keeping the Diablos handle.
Rohr said a lease and performance agreements that are currently being worked out would lay out more of the details that would answer more questions about the details of the proposals.
THE CITY COUNCIL will conduct a work session next Monday to discuss ways to pay the city’s $4 million share should the council agree to the deal.