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July 21, 2010

Centennial Field: A Major League Monster


If there’s one thing Burlington politicians agree on, it’s keeping minor league baseball in the Queen City.

The Vermont Lake Monsters currently hold the best record in the New York-Penn League with a 21-9 record, and are at the top of their division (Stadler) by six games. At home, they have a 12-4 record.

Last week, the city council got behind an effort quietly taking place at City Hall — raising money from private and public sources to make millions of dollars' worth of improvements to the aging Centennial Field.

A task force will report back to the council in October with a range of possible ways to raise the funds necessary to either fix up Centennial or possibly build a new park in the county.

Last year, the University of Vermont severed some of its ties to the historic ballpark by abolishing the school's century-old baseball team.

This year could be the Vermont Lake Monsters’ last at the historic park, given the venue’s substandard playing field, clubhouses and lighting. Major League Baseball has been giving the Lake Monsters’ owner, local businessman Ray Pecor, a year-by-year renewal.

Since minor league baseball returned to Burlington 16 years ago, more than 1.7 million people have attended games at Centennial.

"In September, they will review what has taken place this year and give us a year's extension, or not," said Pecor.

The team has made some minor repairs to the infield and the pitcher's mound this year, but nothing more. MLB has not been willing to give the team more than a one-year extension due to the stadium's shortcomings.

"If we had a new stadium or made significant improvements to Centennial, we could probably talk about a five-, 10- or even 20-year agreement," said Pecor.

He is not interested in solely funding the bare minimum of improvements to meet the MLB's standards. Pecor would like any upgrades to enhance the fan experience, too, such as better seating, improved concessions and more.

How to do that?

New ballparks cost $3000 to $7000 per seat to build, with small markets such as Burlington generally seating up to 6000 people. Renovations range from $4000 to $6000 per seat, according to Brian Pine, the assistant director for housing and baseball at the city’s Community and Economic Development Offices. "Baseball" was added to his title as part of a July 12 memo (Download Memo to Council) to the city council that outlined various funding mechanisms.

Pine said Mayor Bob Kiss, CEDO Director Larry Kupferman and Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold, among others, have been meeting with area business and political leaders to investigate funding streams to make it happen.

“We were really glad to see the city council get on board,” said Pine.

The lead sponsor of the resolution was Councilor Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4). He decided to author the resolution to ensure the city didn't simply wait for MLB to make a decision.

“I didn’t want the Lake Monsters to be suddenly gone while we sat by and did nothing to try to keep them,” said Wright.

His resolution directed CEDO to meet with the team's owners, UVM, a representative from Gov. Jim Douglas' administration and the congressional delegation — all efforts are are currently underway.

Paul Bruhn, from Historic Preservation of Vermont, is also researching private and federal grants to help defray costs.

“If nothing’s done to that park, I think we all know that the Lake Monsters are not going to be here much longer,” said Wright.

Options include: federal and state historic preservation or community economic development block grants; selling stock and making it a publicly owned team; issuing bonds that could be repaid by residents, perhaps through a short-term, special tax on rooms, meals and entertainment in the county.

Other possible financing mechanisms are:

• scratch-off, baseball-themed lottery tickets;

• legislative action to create a special assessment district spanning more than one community, countywide or larger;

• a special stadium tax on restaurants, hotels and rental cars;

• lease financing with team and concession rents;

• gross receipts;

• ticket surcharges;

• bonds, including municipal;

• federal infrastructure improvements;

• parking fees;

• naming rights.

Tom Torti, executive director of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the business community could potentially support a regional tax or funding agreement to either build a new stadium or fix up Centennial.

“Historically, the business community has been willing to take part in [regional] endeavors, such as the educational tech centers, and I think they could do it again if they knew it was only a short-term tax increase to make the improvements,” said Torti.

While any taxes would be levied short-term, argues Pine and others, the improvements would last long-term.

 “If we do something, we need to do something that will not just meet the MLB standards," said Pine, “but something that will keep a baseball team here 15 to 20 years.”

Yeah, the local option tax was supposed to be "short-term" too.

I would like more details from Brian, Larry, Bob and Jonathan, as to whom they have met with, or is this all a quick reaction to the council pushing city hall to pay attention to baseball and get involved. Everything seemed to be so hush hush until the resolution was brought forward by Kurt. Well of course how foolish of me hush hush This is Burlington everything must be being done in executive session somewhere. Next executive session probably scheduled for Russia in September.

Having the Lake Monsters in Burlington is incredibly special. It's one of the key ingredients that make our summers so grand! I really hope to see the whole community rally to keep the team at Centennial Field.

I don't understand why Leopold can't just dip into his magical "cash pool" that is apparently doled out at his discretion, doesn't have to be repaid or reported, and doesn't effect the city budget! How much you need Ray? Just tell Smilin' Bob (everything is fine!) and Jon and they'll open up the checkbook.

I am glad to hear something is being done though. The Lake Monsters are a local treasure and a great regional draw. Gives people and visitors another fun thing to do in Burlington. It'd be a shame to lose them. It's time for people to be creative (in an ethical manner Jon!) and come up with ways to keep them in Burlington.

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