In for $12 million, in for $26.7 million? That’s the question Winston-Salem city leaders will grapple with this month. They might have to keep playing ball with the owner of the city’s minor-league baseball team to protect their original investment in a downtown stadium.
In 2007, the city agreed to front Winston-Salem Dash owners Billy Prim and Andrew Filipowski $12 million to build what was then a $22.6 million stadium to replace Ernie Shore Field, opened in 1956. About $5.5 million was a loan, which the city expects to recoup over 25 years through the property taxes generated by the stadium and a $1-a-ticket surcharge. Once that debt was retired, ownership would transfer to the city. The plan started falling apart in November, when Prim began negotiating to buy Filipowski’s half of the team, formerly known as the Warthogs. As negotiations dragged into the spring, work stopped on the stadium, which the city says is about 60% finished, because subcontractors weren’t being paid. In late May, Prim announced that the deal with Filipowski was nearly complete and construction would resume soon.
Two weeks later, his message changed. Citing the tight credit market, he asked the city to put up an additional $14.7 million for what he now says is a $40.7 million project. Otherwise, according to city officials, the stadium couldn’t be finished. Under a deal cobbled together by the city staff, repayment would come from stadium revenue, including naming rights, sponsorships and ticket sales. The City Council will consider the plan this month.
Winston-Salem officials hope the additional money also will be repaid within 25 years, but their projections are based on Dash attendance averaging nearly 300,000 a year — about 4,200 per game. That could be a stretch. Last year, Dash home games drew 169,963 fans. Through the first 16 home games this year, the gate averaged only 349.
Still, Mayor Allen Joines, who supports the deal, is confident. “When Greensboro opened its new stadium, attendance went from 120,000 a year to 400,000 in the first year.” And it has grown since, he says, with the Greensboro Grasshoppers attracting about 440,000 fans last year. “Our stadium will be at least as nice as theirs, if not nicer.” The alternative is to sue the Dash to recover the original investment, Joines says. “We’d be in a long protracted legal battle, and the main thing we want to do is get the stadium finished.”