Thursday, May 14, 2009

After the Funding Fails: Sarpy Tries to Salvage The Boondoggle

The aftermath of the failure of Sarpy County's financing plan surprised me today. Not the failure itself, mind you. That was inevitable. It's been the reaction by the boosters of the Sarpy County ballpark, who spent the day weeping crocodile tears over the "sudden" failure. Kermit Brashear, the chief lobbyist for Sarpy County, expressed outrage over lobbying by the City of Omaha, MECA, and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce against the proposal.

As if he should have been surprised. Much of LB615 was a retread of the failed proposal to build a new stadium in north downtown a few years back; if that had passed, the Royals would be playing in NoDo today. So it should come as little surprise to Brashear to find Omaha in opposition to the bill now. (And the idea that a lobbyist complaining about others lobbying is rather ironic...)

So why is Brashear whining? The most obvious is that he (and his cohorts) are trying to work up emotions to get the Legislature to reconsider the bill to "save the Royals for the Metro area." In other words, if you criticize the funding, you are against Triple-A baseball. Quite a reach. When Mike Fahey proposed a 2% "entertainment tax", protests didn't kill the stadium proposal. It just meant, go back to the drawing board and find another way to pay for it. And frankly, nobody really expected LB 615 to pass. Many hoped, because the alternatives are less pleasant to Sarpy County than sending the bill to Lincoln. (To Sarpy go the spoils, to Omaha goes the screws, to Lincoln goes the bill...)

So if Brashear is to be believed, does the rejection of LB 615 spell the end of the Sarpy County ballpark? Maybe, but Tom Shatel asked Royals owner Alan Stein about the chances to play downtown, and Stein pretty much eliminated those. Of course, why would he give up on Sarpy County at this point?

So where do things stand? Here's my best guess.

Chances of the Sarpy County ballpark occuring? Probably 70/30 in favor at this point. The lack of funding hurts Sarpy badly at this point, but if they pull out now, they admit failure and that they wasted the money they spent with Brashear. So they'll probably move forward and muddle through. Hold on to your wallets, Sarpy County residents.

If Sarpy bails, the chances of playing downtown? Maybe 10% at this point. Shatel gives a bunch of reasons, but it really comes down to two issues: money and the College World Series disruption. The downtown stadium is bigger than the Royals would like, but I don't think it's a showstopper. (GM Martie Cordaro recently said that they could make a 24,000 seat stadium work because they already are doing it.) The College World Series interruption is the main issue, as the Pacific Coast League simply doesn't want to schedule an extended road trip for the Royals. I don't think the Royals want to play in town during the CWS; they simply know they can't go on the road like they used to, especially with the CWS lasting longer and longer.

Money is the other issue. Stein contradicted himself by telling Shatel that the Royals wouldn't play downtown "for free"...then specified all of the revenue related issues why the Royals couldn't work out a deal downtown. Suite revenue, naming rights revenue, and the revenue from managing the stadium themselves instead of MECA. In the end, it all could be negotiated, but both sides expected far more out of the agreement than either is willing to deal at this point.

That doesn't make Alan Stein a bad guy; in radio interviews, he's affable almost to a fault. He won't say anything bad publicly, and may have not made it clear to the city and MECA just what he needed to make a deal downtown work. Now he's got a deal that's better for him, and he's not going to budge as long as it's still on the table. (Not better for Omaha or the state of Nebraska, mind you.) But that's his right as owner of the Royals: it's his team and his right to get the best deal he can.

Could Omaha somehow work out a deal for the Royals still? Maybe...but probably the biggest hurdle would be to somehow find a way to cut the length of the Royals road trip during the College World Series. And frankly, I don't see how the NCAA agrees to that. They need scheduling flexibility in case the rains come, and don't want to see the field abused any more than necessary.

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