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Newspaper Article

    Outcry Over Ballpark is Loud, Upset, Yet Resigned

    BY Wesley Young
    07/01/2009
    by Wesley Young on 6/13/09.

    Nobody is happy that the city will have to pay an extra $15.7 million to finish the baseball stadium downtown, but cries of dismay yesterday were mixed with calls for stadium construction to continue.

    The Winston-Salem City Council will meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday to discuss and possibly take action on a deal to finish the stadium.

    "I'm still struggling with it," said Council Member Robert Clark, who represents the city's West ward. "It is very complicated, and there is no win-win answer. Every answer has terrible consequences."

    The choice is to go forward with the deal or have "a half-built stadium that sits there forever," Clark said. "It has no market value. Nobody would buy it."

    Billy Prim, the owner of the Winston-Salem Dash, the city's single-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, said Thursday that the collapse of his business partnership with Andrew "Flip" Filipowski and the global credit crunch has made it impossible for him to borrow enough money to go forward with stadium construction without the city's help. The total cost of the stadium, which was initially expected to cost $22.6 million, is now estimated at $40.7 million.

    The city has already given Prim $12 million to help build the stadium. Under the new deal, the city would take out a $12.7 million loan from BB&T and then turn the money over to Prim and the stadium developers. Prim's stadium-development company would pay the city's loan payments -- principle and interest -- over the next 25 years.

    The city would also give the development company another $2 million from a federal grant. The city would give the money back to itself if the grant comes through. And the city would also finance the purchase of land for the second phase of the project, which would be a multi-use development with retail and office spaces. The company would pay the city $980,361 for that land over 5 years.

    Under the proposed deal, the city would take ownership of the stadium in 25 years.

    More than a hundred people -- most of them angry about the deal -- vented their feelings yesterday at JournalNow.com, the Web site of the Winston-Salem Journal.

    While most of those who commented were against the deal, about 79 percent of the respondents to the site's unscientific opinion poll were in favor of the city's action.

    Around town, people were talking about the deal.

    Many were critical of the city's leadership for getting into such a bind, but others questioned how else the stadium would get finished.

    "It is really embarrassing in a city that wants to attract business and development to have a stadium sit empty for year," said Heriberto Martinez, who lives in Ardmore.

    "I guess the only other option is to cut your losses, let it die and bulldoze the site."

    Some residents said they didn't like that the city has to be more involved in the deal, but others said that a new stadium would be good for the city when it is finished.

    "It's a little silly not to continue," said Claudia Turner. But Turner said it may be hard for people to enjoy the stadium once it is finished because the project "has such a negative connotation."

    Ray Quesnel of Pfafftown said he was disappointed about the extra costs, but predicted the stadium would be a success.

    "As soon as the stadium opens, people will flood the area," he said.

    The city has no choice but to move forward with the stadium for the good of the community, said Gayle Anderson, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.

    "We can't afford to have a half-finished stadium sitting there and what it would say about this community and what it thinks about itself," she said. "You can't change the past and you can't change the economy. We need to move forward and get some games played there."

    But Anderson said that the chamber is not going to mount a campaign to support the stadium deal. She said she will be talking with the chamber's volunteer leadership, but that it would be up to individual members to make up their minds.

    Anderson said she's not surprised that Prim had trouble finding money in the private sector to finish the stadium.

    "Certainly I have talked with business leaders, some of whom are people who might have considered investing, who said to me that their own personal portfolios are down considerably and that they have no funds to invest in anything right now," Anderson said.

    Prim's getting a deal that most business people couldn't get, said Joyce Krawiec of Kernersville. Krawiec is the North Carolina grassroots coordinator for Freedom Works, a group that works for lower taxes and smaller government.

    "The small business owners of Winston-Salem are footing the bill for these guys," Krawiec said. "If you are going to bail out one, when do you stop? Why do our elected officials pick and choose winners and losers in the business industry? It's totally unfair."

    And the council shouldn't handle the matter on such short notice, she added.

    Forsyth County Commissioner Walter Marshall said that people he's talked to are upset but see no way out for the city.

    "I don't know what else we can do," Marshall said. "You can't just let it sit there. Some people think (the deal) was bad, and some people are saying what options do you have left. Nobody likes it."

    The county has no money tied up in the stadium, but has promised tax incentives worth $12.5 million over 25 years for a second phase of stadium-area development that would include offices, stores and housing. No timeline has been set for that part of the project.

    Forsyth Commissioner Debra Conrad, part of a 4-3 commission majority that approved the county's involvement in the project's second phase, said she is glad the county did not get involved in the stadium part of the deal.

    "I don't want the citizens to jump all over Billy Prim because Filipowski is the problem here and Billy is doing the best he can," Conrad said. "I certainly don't want to see the project fail. I don't envy the mayor and city council having to make the decision during a recession. I don't know how much more the public can take."

    Nathan Tabor, the chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party, said that the city is giving stadium owners "a blank check."

    "They're not even putting in any type of what I would consider stoppers, guarantees that a standard bank would put into any other deal," Tabor said. "You make a bad investment, you pay for it. You don't get bailed out. And this is a bad investment."

    Philip Mahan of Lexington said he grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., and remembers how the local baseball team created a sense of community.

    ""I think they should finish it," he said. "However, I'm not happy about public funds going to a private industry."

    City Council Member Nelson Malloy said he supported the stadium in the beginning because of its potential to spur economic development. Now, he's not sure how he will vote. "I haven't changed my mind that much, but I will have to wait until Monday to see which way I am going with it," he said.