INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The Braves’ hopes of moving their high-Class A affiliate to Wilmington, N.C., were dealt a major blow Tuesday when voters issued a resounding “no” on a referendum to raise property taxes to pay for a proposed new ballpark.
Without $37 million in new taxes to build a ballpark on the Cape Fear River, the Wilmington plan is probably over and the Braves will remain in Lynchburg, Va., unless and until another option materializes. They had hoped to move to Wilmington in time for the 2015 season.
“As the mayor stated last night, they won’t pursue other [funding] options so most likely [it’s] dead,” said Mike Plant, Braves executive vice president of business operations. “Fortunately all the good people in Lynchburg always understood this wasn’t about any dissatisfaction with them or our location.”
The Braves had hoped to move in order to have a state-of-the-art ballpark like those used by their other minor-league affiliates, and to have a player-development contract with a minor league ownership group, in this case Mandalay Baseball Properties.
The Braves and Mandalay agreed in February to enter a six-month negotiating period with Wilmington officials. The Braves hoped their offer of a 20-year lease would help sway opinion in Wilmington, where skeptics pointed to brief stints by other minor league teams that left Wilmington for better deals elsewhere.
“Moving our high-A minor league team affiliation to Wilmington, North Carolina would be a huge benefit to the players and development staff in our organization,” Plant said in September, just before the Wilmington City Council approved the plan.
That left only one major hurdle – Tuesday’s bond referendum. It proved insurmountable, with 70 percent voting against it.
Wilmington mayor Bill Saffo thought the vote would be closer. It would have required a 2.5-cent increase in property taxes per $100 of value, or $50 per year for a $200,000 home.
“The opportunity came knocking at our door at a time when citizens were worried about government spending,” Saffo told the Wilmington Star News. “They’ve spoken very clearly. We will not pursue baseball.”
The Braves will let the dust settle before possibly looking for other options. For now, they’ll stay in Lynchburg at 73-year-old City Stadium, which had its most recent renovation in 2004.
The Braves’ minor-league teams play in upscale, recently built ballparks in all of their other full-season affiliates at low-A Rome, Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett. They went from outdated stadiums to taxpayer-funded ballparks when they moved their Double-A team from Greenville, S.C., and their Triple-A team from Richmond.
Wilmington would have been the last piece in the organization’s aim of having top-tier facilities throughout their minor league system.