The Savannah Sand Gnats ownership group is scheduled to meet with the Savannah City Council on Thursday to discuss the team’s vision for a new ballpark, the Savannah Morning News reports. The team will propose a public/private partnership similar to the franchise’s Fort Wayne Tin Caps relationship with the city of Fort Wayne.
In Fort Wayne, the city put up about $25 million, while Hardball Capital, which also owns the Gnats, invested about $5 million. However, in an interview with Sport Radio 102.1’s Seth Harp, Monday afternoon, Hardball Capital CEO Jason Frieir told Harp that when the full costs of operation and maintenance were factored in, the team bore the “majority” of the costs, “Over 30 years, in Fort Wayne, it was over 50% private money,” Freier said. “If you take all of the costs into account, we’re talking about something that primarily privately funded.”
In part, the impetus for this push in Savannah is the progress the city of Columbia, South Carolina is making toward building a new ballpark as part of their Bull Street development. Most recently, Columbia approved a feasibility study for a ballpark in November. Following the first meeting of the Bull Street Commission last week, WIST.com reported that “A contract on the study is expected by the end of January.”
Historic Grayson Stadium, the Gnats’ home in Savannah, is the oldest full-season ballpark in minor league baseball. While pretty from the outside, it lacks the modern amenities for fans or the teams and players of current facilities. The team within operates at a loss financially annually. As Freier explained to Harp, “[Ownership] have had to put money into this team every year… Attendance has doubled, but it’s not enough for the team to break even every year.”
The Gnats’ preferred site in Savannah is the Savannah River Landings, a 40-acre parcel on the East end of Downtown where development has stalled since the 2008 crash. The City is currently losing money on the site, “Savannah is paying debt service on that district around Savannah River Landing after the economic downturn stalled development and the site failed to generate enough revenue to cover bond payments,” per the Savannah Morning News. This is a big part of Hardball Capital’s argument, that a ballpark at the River Landings would turn the property around. “We believe we’d draw half million people a year to the River Landings site,” Freier said. “Turning this site from a revenue drain to a revenue generator would be one of the reasons the city would co-invest with us.”
The Gnats’ chances in Savannah, appear slim. As the Savannah Morning News drily put it, “With the city focused on building a $120 million arena in west Savannah, Hardball Capital will likely face a tough sell.”
This is not purely Mets news. The Mets’ Player Development Contract with the Sand Gnats expires after the 2014 season. If indeed the Gnats franchise moves to Columbia, SC, for 2015 or 2016, they will only do as a Mets’ affiliate if both sides want to renew their agreement. For the Mets, associating with a franchise playing in a new ballpark (with say modern workout, training and clubhouse spaces) makes for a better development environment for their players. On the other side, the Columbia [Insert Name Heres], playing in a new ballpark, in a growing region, would be attractive to not just the Mets, but other Major League teams looking for a new a-ball affiliate.
There is still no guarantee the Gnats will leave Savannah. Columbia, SC does not have a ballpark yet, while Savannah does.